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The legislative landscape for electronic cigarettes is still being carved out state by state. Since bursting onto the American market just a few years ago, the smokeless nicotine product has seen a huge spike in popularity, especially among smokers looking to quit.

Bills look to regulate booming e-cig business

Beecher Vaillancourt, pictured in the photo above, displays an array of e-cigarettes in his shop, Infinite Vapor. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Beecher Vaillancourt, pictured in the photo above, displays an array of e-cigarettes in his shop, Infinite Vapor. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

The legislative landscape for electronic cigarettes is still being carved out state by state. Since bursting onto the American market just a few years ago, the smokeless nicotine product has seen a huge spike in popularity, especially among smokers looking to quit.

The spread of e-cigarettes has been a boon to entrepreneurs, who have seized on the growing demand to open dozens of new stores across the state. The rise of e-cigarettes has also caught the attention of federal, state and local officials, some of whom are deeply concerned about the sudden appearance of a product they think is addictive, and possibly dangerous.

In Minnesota, the product is already taxed at 95 percent of its wholesale price, a figure that brings e-cigarettes in line with other smokeless tobacco goods, but gives the state the highest such levy in the country.

In February, DFL Reps. Laurie Halverson of Eagan and Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis plan to propose further regulatory measures in bills at the Capitol. They’re sure to clash with enthusiastic early adopters of a burgeoning industry, who claim their wares have already been proven safe hundreds of times over.

Kahn, a scientist by training — she has a Ph.D. in biophysics — remains unconvinced about the current state of research into electronic cigarettes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to rein in the industry, despite a huge upswing in usage, especially among young Americans.

“These things,” Kahn said, “are really untested, for all the people who say how safe they are.”

Kahn bill has public spaces ban

Under the terms of Kahn’s bill, which she pre-filed earlier this month, e-cigarettes would be incorporated into the Clean Indoor Air Act, a landmark piece of public health legislation she authored in 1975. If passed, her bill would prohibit the use of e-cigarettes — or “vaping,” the shorthand term consumers use for vaporizing — in bars, restaurants and other public spaces, in the same way cigarette and cigar smoke is currently banned.

Similar indoor bans are already in place in New Jersey, North Dakota and Utah, and the city of New York recently passed its own ban. More locally, Hennepin County banned electronic cigarettes on county property, including Metro Transit vehicles, and the Duluth City Council enacted a citywide indoor ban in September.

Kahn said she understands there is a large difference between the flavored puffs of vapor that emit from user’s mouths and traditional tobacco smoke. But she plans to make her case along two central lines: namely, that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking, and that it is a waste of time and money to force local governments to pass measures like the one approved in Duluth.

Kahn’s bill has a number of co-authors, including Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee. She said she is still working to gain one more co-author in specific; freshman Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, is a regular user of e-cigarettes himself, according to Kahn.

Halverson, for her part, said the topic came to her attention after she heard from multiple local government officials in her district. One aspect of her proposal would grant municipal bodies further regulatory power to set their own policy on electronic cigarettes.

Other pieces of Halverson’s bill would provide for harsher punishments for electronic cigarette retailers who sell the products to minors. One such aspect would make the sale of e-cigarettes to someone under 18 a misdemeanor criminal offense, as it currently is with other tobacco products. Like Kahn, Halverson sees a deliberate campaign to target young users and get them addicted to nicotine early in life.

“They have bubblegum flavor, and cotton candy,” Halverson said. “And you can go get a ‘Hello Kitty’ vaporizer.”

Halverson understands there is a challenge in trying to craft legislation around an issue where most legislators are unfamiliar with the topic.

“We definitely have a knowledge deficit that we’re dealing with,” Halverson said. “It’s such a brand new issue.”

One self-confessed member of the group still learning about e-cigarettes is Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, who said the issue had begun to crop up more and more in recent months. Mack has been doing some research about the topic on her own, and said she would currently tend to side with the idea of including it under the indoor ban on smoking. But, she was quick to add, she has not taken a firm position, and is willing to hear evidence to the contrary.

Industry group reacts

Enter Matt Black. Black leads the Minnesota League of Vape Shops, a newly formed trade industry group that advocates on behalf of about 50 store owners; Black says its membership constitutes almost the whole of the e-cigarette market in Minnesota.

Black advocated against the crackdown in Duluth, and also made his industry’s case before officials in Mankato, among other local government battles. He is prepared to represent the case for e-cigarettes during this year’s legislative session, and plans to bring piles of academic studies that have found no adverse health effects from the use of a vaporizer.

“This is peer-reviewed science — it’s not just some guy in his backyard trying to figure things out,” said Black, who said the idea that the science is unsettled is falsely “ingrained” in decision-makers’ heads.

Black said an indoor ban would be a “death blow” to local shops, many of which have only just opened for business. That concern was echoed by Beecher Vaillancourt, who is co-owner of a chain of “Infinite Vapor” shops in the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs.

“I think a proposal like [Kahn’s] just sets everything back,” Vaillancourt said. “I don’t think to ban it or lump it in the same category with smoking is an effective way to regulate it.”

Kahn said the fact that e-cigarette shops are springing up throughout the metro area is all the more reason to take on the issue now.

“That’s another reason to do it fast,” Kahn said. “The longer we wait, the more people are going to be claiming, ‘You’re killing the business.’”

About Mike Mullen

16 comments

  1. Seems like Phyllis Kahn wants to hurry up and ban ecigs before more people quit smoking to me!

  2. The idea of an outright ban on indoor usage is purely irresponsible from a public health standpoint. The less incentive current smokers have to quit smoking and switch to vaping (considerably less harmful than tobacco smoke), the less likely they are to do so. As current smokers fail and fail and fail to quit time and again, casualty rates will remain consistent.

    To include something that is not toxic, nor does it contain harmful chemicals, in the Clean Indoor Air Act is just silly. Please, for the love of all that is good, read the science, understand theory vs. peer reviewed research and base your decisions on the greater good.

  3. Unless ms kahn wants to provide peer review scientific evidence to support her case that use of personal vaporizers is as dangerous as smoking (as her bill is trying to assert) then i would be suspect of her motives.

    How do we know she is not in the pocket of the lobbyists?

    The only sound way to inform policy is with science, not backroom deals and high horse moralizing about what people can and cannot do.

  4. this bill is a knee jerk reaction to a non resistant problem, cigarettes taste horrible, cost to run for e-cigs is about $25 a month while cigarettes are at least $42 a week, for a pack a day smoker…..so it is not a problem for anyone to go the other way, and there are many studies that find the second hand vapor of e-cigs to be harmless, so why are my rights being infringed for something that does no one else harm

  5. Banning e-cigarettes indoors is extremely short-sighted. They’ve helped me to completely eliminate my 10 year smoking habit and I’ve never felt better.

  6. I really wish these “Nanny State” politicians like Kahn would actually DO THEIR JOB THEY WERE ELECTED TO DO and read the research and act accordingly instead of jumping on the “ban everything bandwagon” they are so accustomed to. I was a 2 pack a day smoker for many years and my wife was a pack a day smoker for the same amount of time. We both have quit cigarettes by using E-cig personal vaporizer products. We have saved a considerable amount of money and added many more years to our lives. If politicians would actually look at the huge number of people who have done the same thing, they may actually embrace this life saving method of nicotine delivery and quit their knee-jerk reactions to things that continue to help people quit analog cigs. What are you politicians afraid of?

  7. Banning e-cigarettes is a lot like banning coffee on the basis that both coffee and pop have caffeine in them, and pop is bad for your health. People link smoking and vaping together because of the nicotine, but nicotine, while addictive, isn’t bad for you (it’s very similar to caffeine) and so with only that really in common, it doesn’t make sense to regulate e-cigs as you would regular cigarettes.

  8. Here is the purpose of the “Clean indoor Air Act”
    “144.412 PUBLIC POLICY.
    The purpose of sections 144.411 to 144.417 is to protect employees and the general public from the hazards of secondhand smoke by eliminating smoking in public places, places of employment, public transportation, and at public meetings.”
    Since it has been proven there is no second hand smoke released from an e-cig that can harm bystanders, and second hand emissions are no worse that the air we breath, I can’t see how her amendment to the bill is pertinent.
    Seems to be a ploy for Kahn to get another notch on her belt.

  9. terry.miller@landcapitalmn.com

    Why is the legislator’s immediate reaction to everything to look for a way to regulate?

  10. I have quit a 15+ yrs havit that was killing me thanks to vapes! Law makers are all up in arms about them because they are taking away from the cigarette tax that’s supposed to pay for a stadium I will NEVER step foot in! They aren’t getting my money anymore and are mad about it!

  11. So, these legislators want to ban the use of a product that helps get people off of cigarettes by switching to a safer alternative?
    They claim it’s marketed to kids because they have flavors? Really? Ever been to a liquor store? Are they saying all the flavored vodkas ect. are specifically marketed towards kids? The fact is adults like flavors, and if it helps in keeping them away from traditional cigarettes all the better!
    They claim there’s no science to show e-cigs are safer. Check out http://www.mnvapers.com or http://www.casaa.org for a list of many studies by the FDA, the CDC, NIH, major universities, medical groups and doctors that say e-cigs are 99% safer to the primary user and pose zero health risks to anyone around them.
    They claim it looks like smoking and this is a behavior they don’t want to normalize smoking. I say vaping demonizes traditional smoking. If it looks like smoking, perhaps we should just ban breathing outside during Minnesota winters too?
    They want to hurry up before more businesses get hurt by their bans. By doing so they will be keeping Minnesota smokers from a safer alternative and keeping them smoking. Good call.

  12. Public policy needs to be informed by evidence and reason. Ms. Kahn’s bill has neither.

    The purpose of banning smoking indoors was to reduce the harm caused by bystanders who were inhaling other peoples’ second-hand smoke.

    If she wants to categorize vaporizers the same as traditional tobacco cigarettes, we need to demand that she shows us the evidence that they cause similar harm to bystanders. Without that evidence, there is no reason to move forward with this legislation. Of course, we know the studies show the exact opposite. These devices do no harm to bystanders.

    This is a fight worth having. We need to show our legislators that we WILL NOT have our freedoms taken away without sound reason and scientific evidence to show the harm it is causing to others.

  13. This is ridiculous. I quit smoking in favor of vaping a little over a month ago. Since then I haven’t smelled like a dirty ashtray, I don’t cough my brains out every morning, my skin has become clearer and my teeth have become cleaner. I really don’t understand what the big issue is here. Sure, there are some e cig users out there that definitely have some kind of agenda and treat vaping indoors like some political statement. Personally I respect the fact there are people who don’t want to be around it. If I’m out in public I either turn down the voltage on my battery to limit the amount of vapor coming out or I excuse myself to go to the restroom lThere are many people who have ditched a long term tobacco habit in favor of using an e-cig. Isn’t getting people off the tobacco more important than all these petty arguments? The “candy flavor” argument is ridiculous. There are a lot of adults who like candy and bubble gum type flavors too. I don’t think kids would really go for the e-cig and transition to tobacco. Most users of the products are used by former smokers. Most people don’t just start vaping. I think the most responsible thing, and cheaper for the tax payers, is have establishments post a sign saying whether they allow it or they don’t and leave it up to the business owner.

  14. Rather than a gate way to smoking, ecigs has been an exit door from my 50 yr smoking habit. After reducing to zero nicotine, I don’t use the ecig either.

  15. This is just another way for legislation who is scared of the new to justify the taxes imposed on this “harmful product”. FYI stuff in quotations is sarcasm.

  16. The proposed ban has absolutely no basis in all scientific research conducted to date. As other’s have already commented, there is scores of data available showing nothing but continued proof that ecig vapor is virtually harmless, both for the primary user as well as 2nd hand (YES there are studies).

    I interpret Kahn’s proposal as just another indication of the influence of the money from big tobacco and big pharma on public policy. As I’ve heard this argument, on the national, state and local levels, it simply comes down to the money flowing through sales of real tobacco, the industry of unsuccessful pharmaceutical solutions and to be more controversial, in support of the huge industry of cancer treatment.

    I lost both of my parents due to tobacco use. I only wish ecigs were available 20 or 30 years sooner.

    Fellow citizens, watch carefully how your elected officials vote. Think about what influences their positions on these policies that impact you and your neighbors. Apparently they assume we are all mindless sheep. Speak up and vote your conscience.

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