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E-cigarette regulation bill begins to move in Minnesota Legislature

Minnesota Rep. Tom Huntley of Duluth listens to testimony about electronic cigarettes Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, during a House committee hearing. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Electronic cigarettes would not be available to youths under a bill the Minnesota House is considering, but a provision that would have banned them from public locations was not expected to survive.

The bill would prohibit e-cigarette sales to anyone younger than 18 and ban them from schools.

“It seems like a no brainer,” Rep. Laurie Halverson, D-Eagan, said about her bill.

The use of e-cigarettes among youths doubled in the last year, state Health Commissioner Edward Ehlinger told the House Health and Human Services Committee Wednesday. He said he thinks the products are marketed to hook youths on nicotine in the product, and later they will smoke tobacco cigarettes.

E-cigarettes often include flavors to appeal to children, he said. Some are linked to Gummy Bears and others connected with Hello Kitty.

Users of the new product inhale heated, vaporized liquid mixed with flavors. Supporters of "vaping" say that nicotine is optional.

Many users opt for e-cigarettes as a way to break away from tobacco cigarettes, but committee members Wednesday heard no proof that the product is a good way to wean oneself from traditional cigarettes. In fact, many testifiers said there is little scientific information available about the substance.

“My concern is this bill is putting the cart before the horse in trying to prevent a problem we don't know if we have,” Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said.

However, committee Chairwoman Tina Liebling, D-Rochester, countered by saying it is better to keep people safe from nicotine and other harmful substances that could be in the vapor.

Liebling said she planned to remove a section of Halverson's bill that would have treated e-cigarettes like tobacco cigarettes in a state law that bans smoking in public places. However, when pressed by reporters she said that the provision could come back later as the bill travels through legislative committees.

Cap O'Rourke of Independent Vaping Retailers of Minnesota said the e-cigarette industry “obviously is booming.” More than 200 shops have applied for licenses to open vaping shops around Minnesota in the past year he said, including stand-alone stores, convenience stores and other merchants.

Vaping store owner Jesse Griffith said that stores do not sell to minors. He said his employees check ages if they suspect someone is underage, and liquids used to inhale and devices used to produce the vapor are kept behind the counter.

He estimated that someone who smokes a pack of tobacco cigarettes a day would pay $210 in a month. If the smoker turned to vaping, he said, a $20 bottle of the flavored liquid could last up to a month.

Liebling, who planned to remove from the bill a ban from smoking e-cigarettes in public places, stopped the meeting at one point and said: “I believe I can smell some vaping going on in this room. If you are doing that, I would ask you not to do that in this room.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.