By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
ELY, Minn. — As the popularity of electronic cigarettes takes off, cities and other government entities across the state are making moves to restrict the smokeless product.
Twenty-five Minnesota cities and counties have implemented restrictions on e-cigarette sampling or public use to conform with existing prohibitions on tobacco smoking, a Watchdog Minnesota survey found.
Proposed e-cigarette restrictions remain in the works in Edina, St. Peter and at the University of Minnesota.
Could a statewide law be next?
“Stay tuned on that one,” Scott Smith, communications specialist for the Minnesota Department of Health, told Watchdog Minnesota in an email. “We don’t have any announcements yet, though it is definitely a topic the department is looking into.”
But it won’t come without a fight.
“We’ll be trying to present information to Minnesota legislators on why this would not only fail to help public health but would actually prove to be a setback,” said Julie Woessner, a volunteer legislative director for Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association who says e-cigarettes helped her kick a 30-year smoking habit. ” Our position is there really is no risk to bystanders with the use of these products and we’ll be presenting evidence on that score.”
Critics say the health impact of the faux smokes remains an open question and could lure younger people into smoking the real thing once they get started. Supporters say e-smokes could save countless lives by weaning smokers off tobacco with a product that’s comparatively benign.
Minnesota already taxes e-cigarettes like tobacco, the only state to do so. Within weeks lawmakers will be debating legislation to regulate e-cigarettes the same as real smokes with support from ClearWay Minnesota, an advocacy group funded by Minnesota’s tobacco settlement.
”We hear that over and over again that clear indoor air has become the standard that Minnesotans are expecting,” said Anne Mason, public affairs manager for ClearWay. “So we as an organization would support that at the state level.”
Local officials, meanwhile, are sorting sort through conflicting information on the pros and cons of the battery-operated devices that emit a vapor and small amounts of nicotine, but do not contain tobacco.
Take the northern Minnesota city of Ely, which recently considered an e-cigarette ban, but pulled back as word spread in the northern Minnesota community.
“Initially, and I’m not sure why, it came to us as an outright ban,” said Ely Mayor Ross Petersen. “ I noticed that right away and I said: ‘You know we’re not banning these, are we? Because we had some folks get back to us and say you can’t ban this, this is what helped my wife quit.’”
Instead of a ban, the Ely City Council placed a six month moratorium on sampling e-cigarettes in so-called “vaping lounges” and imposed the same restrictions on their use as regular cigarettes. In effect, the moratorium buys the city time to review how other governments handle the issue and health studies expected to be released, including from the Food and Drug Administration.
“Right now we’re not saying they can never be able to be used in here,” Petersen said. “If we have evidence it doesn’t hurt anybody, or bother anybody else, or have any kind of secondhand smoke, maybe they will end up being in public places.”
Still, the process of introducing and promoting e-cigarette ordinances can be nearly as controversial as the issue itself, judging by the fallout from the spirited debate over vaping restrictions this fall in Duluth. Some Duluth City Council members were critical of the campaign launched by e-cigarette opponents following approval of three ordinances that attracted national attention.
“The effect of this ordinance to ban e-cigarettes has created so much controversy, and there’s been so much polarization between the people who still smoke (and) the people who are trying to quit using the e-cigarette that I think it’s caused more harm to their mission,” said Duluth City Council member Sharla Gardner said after the vote.
Contact Tom Steward at [email protected].