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.’”