Providence: The Case of Coupons and Flavored Products

Thomas A. Briant, NATO Executive Director

On Monday, July 29, an oral argument hearing was held before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a lawsuit seeking to overturn two Providence, R.I. tobacco ordinances. The hearing involved an appeal of a federal district court ruling that upheld the tobacco-related ordinances adopted by the Providence, R.I. city council on January 5, 2012.

One of the Providence ordinances prohibits both the redemption of tobacco product coupons and the sale of multi-packs of tobacco products with discounted prices. The second Providence ordinance outlaws the sale of most flavored tobacco products.

The parties that sued the City of Providence include NATO, the Cigar Association of America, Lorillard Tobacco Co., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., American Snuff Co., Philip Morris, USA, Inc., U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Manufacturing Co., LLC, U.S. Smokeless Brands, Inc. and John Middleton Co.

Coupon and Discount Ordinance

One of the Providence ordinances prohibits any retailer that holds a retail tobacco license from accepting or redeeming any coupon that allows a consumer to obtain tobacco products free of charge or for less than the listed or non-discounted price. In addition, the ordinance prohibits the sale of tobacco products to consumers through any multi-packs with a discounted price such as a “buy two, get one free” offer or providing consumers any tobacco products without charge or for less than the listed or non-discounted price in exchange for the purchase of any other tobacco product. 

Flavored Tobacco Ordinance

The other Providence ordinance bans the sale of tobacco products, except in smoking bars, that have a characterizing flavor with a distinguishable taste or aroma of any fruit, chocolate, vanilla, honey, candy, cocoa, dessert, alcoholic beverage, herb or spice and such “concepts as spicy, arctic, ice, cool, warm, hot, mellow, fresh and breeze.” The tobacco products covered by this ban include, but are not limited to, cigars, pipe tobacco, snuff, chewing tobacco, dipping tobacco, bidis, snus, dissolvable tobacco products, and electronic cigarette cartridges. However, tobacco products with a characterizing flavor that have the taste or aroma of tobacco, menthol, mint or wintergreen are not banned under the ordinance.

The three-judge panel hearing the appeal did not indicate any timeframe for the issuance of a ruling on the case. When a ruling is issued, NATO will report on the outcome of the court case.