By Eric Boehm | MN Watchdog
ST. PAUL, Minn. — New restrictions on the use of electronic cigarettes could be coming to Minnesota before the end of the legislative session, but the two chambers have to work out differences on the extent of the new rules.
Members of the state House voted Monday night to add a series of e-cigarettes regulations to an omnibus health and human services bill that is making its way through the Legislature.
The regulations would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, prohibit their use on school property and in state-owned buildings and would limit where and how the devices can be sold. House members, however, voted down a proposal to regulate e-cigarettes in the same manner as other tobacco products, which would have banned its use in all public places in the state.
State Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said fears about second-hand smoke from e-cigarettes are overblown because the process — known as “vaping” instead of smoking — produces only water vapor, not smoke.
“There is no scientific evidence that makes a connection between electronic cigarettes, or vaping, or the second-hand effects of vaping, with cancer,” Zerwas said.
Lawmakers who supported the new regulations said a ban on using e-cigarettes on school property would help keep the devices out of children’s hands. Other new rules, like a ban on selling the devices in mall kiosks and a requirement for child-proof caps on the liquid cartridges used to produce the nicotine-infused water vapor, are intended to do the same.
“We need to make sure we are being responsible and putting a message out to our kids that this is dangerous,” said state Rep. Laurie Halverson, D-Eagan. “We’re telling kids these are safe substances. They are not.”
Dozens of states and the Food and Drug Administration are working on regulations for e-cigarettes, which are small electronic devices that allow a user to inhale water vapor tinged with nicotine as an alternative to tobacco cigarettes.
The tobacco industry has promoted the devices as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes because they produce no smoke, no tar and no other nasty by-products of smoking. Anti-smoking activists are fighting to get the devices regulated in the same way as traditional cigarettes, despite obvious difference between the two.
Though the state House voted against banning the devices in all public spaces, a separate bill making its way through the state Senate does classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products and puts them under the indoor air act rules.
Matt Black, president of the Minnesota Vapers Advocacy Group, a consumer group with about 3,000 members, said he does not understand the rush to ban e-cigarettes when there is no evidence the water vapor produced by the devices is harmful.
“At the end of the day, we believe it should be left up to business owners to decide if they want to allow it in their establishments,” he said.
The group opposes the full ban on vaping in public places, but supports some of the other regulations approved by the state House on Monday, including the restrictions on sales and marketing to minors.
The only problem with those rules is the ban on sales from mall kiosks, Black said.
“I can understand the logic there, but there’s already a number of businesses using mall kiosks as part of their business model,” he told Watchdog.org. “Essentially, that amendment is going to shut down 20 or so businesses in the state.”
Molly Moilanen, Director of Public Affairs at ClearWay Minnesota, an anti-smoking group, praised the House for its vote on Monday and voiced support for the mall kiosk ban.
“We support the portion of this bill that bans e-cigarette sales from retail kiosks, which will make e-cigarettes less visible in environments like shopping malls, where young people congregate,” she said in a statement.
The differences between the House and Senate bills will have to be worked out before a final product can go to Gov. Mark Dayton for his consideration. The governor already has indicated he does not support a full ban on e-cigarettes in public places.
“A lot of people are trying to quit smoking because of the higher price and are using this as a way of quitting smoking, which is what we want them to do,” the governor said.
The amendments approved by the state House on Monday were adopted with voice votes, and the final version of the omnibus health bill passed with bipartisan support.
Contact Eric Boehm at EBoehm@Watchdog.org and follow @EricBoehm87 and @Watchdog.org on Twitter.