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E-cigarettes take off in Minnesota — and so does fight over regulating them

Possible unknown harms from the devices prompt proposals to make Minnesota one of the toughest states on the growing industry.

While hundreds of studies have been conducted on e-cigarettes, there’s no evidence the devices cause cancer.
REUTERS/Toby Melville

They can be fairly easy to spot in bars or restaurants – some light up white or blue, and all emit stream of vapor that’s often scented like melon or strawberries, the more popular flavors on the market.

These futuristic-looking cigarettes – better known as electronic-cigarettes or simply e-cigarettes – are gaining popularity across the country and particularly in states like Minnesota, where taxes on cigarettes went up to a $1.60 per pack last summer. Unlike traditional tobacco cigarettes, e-cigarettes deliver nicotine to users through a battery-powered coil that heats a flavored solution into a vapor, which is inhaled.  

Current conventional wisdom and some research suggests e-cigarette nicotine comes without the carcinogens in traditional cigarettes, and its similarity to the act of smoking is making it one of the more popular items on the market for smokers looking to quit. It doesn’t hurt that in cold-weather states like Minnesota, e-cigarettes users can smoke the devices inside most establishments. Bloomberg estimates the e-cigarette industry could hit $1.5 billion in sales this year and surpass traditional tobacco products as soon as 2023.

But the new and booming industry has so far avoided regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a fact that has some worried about any possible unknown harms in the devices. While the FDA is currently drafting recommendations on e-cigarettes, some state legislatures have taken matters into their own hands. About 27 states, including Minnesota, ban e-cigarettes for minors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three states – North Dakota, Utah and New Jersey — ban smoking e-cigarettes indoors.

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Minnesota could soon join the ranks: Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, has introduced a bill to add e-cigarettes in the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, legislation she authored in 1975 to ban smoking on public property. In 2007, Minnesota lawmakers amended the act to also prohibit smoking in places of employment, restaurants and bars and in public transportation.

“One of the things that’s happening, and it’s a good reason to do it now, there are businesses that are starting to jump on this, so you want to slow it down before it gets too widespread,” Kahn said. “We are not banning it, we are just putting on the brakes to say, lets look at this a bit closer.”

‘A step backwards’

According to Kahn, another benefit of her bill is it will take pressure off of local governments. So far the battle over what to do with e-cigarettes has been waged on the local level. More than two-dozen Minnesota cities and counties have implemented restrictions on e-cigarette use in public places.

The latest city join the list is Mankato, where the City Council recently voted nearly unanimously to ban electronic cigarettes in most indoor places in the city. Hennepin County has banned smoking e-cigs on county property, and Metro Transit has banned e-cigarettes on all buses and trains. And there’s no so-called “vaping” allowed at Target Field, either.

Another proposal introduced this year by Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, would make selling e-cigarettes to minors a misdemeanor, give local governments more power to regulate the devices and ban their use on public school campuses.

A major concern among skeptics is that e-cigarettes – sold in flavors like strawberry and bubblegum – are being marketed to children and could become a pathway to cigarettes. New data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found use of e-cigarettes among middle- and high-school student went from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. That has alarmed public health officials.

The Minnesota Department of Health is not working on any state-level policies to regulate e-cigarettes, but officials have supported local bans like in Duluth and support efforts currently introduced in the Legislature. Smoking cessation groups, like Clearway Minnesota, are against the use of e-cigarettes.

“We don’t feel like anyone should be exposed to the vapor until we know what’s in it,” said Clearway spokesman Mike Sheldon. “What we are looking at, if we are talking about allowing a substance with unknown harm into our air, that would be a step backwards.”

Better than tobacco?

But what exactly is in the so-called “e-juice” used in the devices? Nicotine is the key functioning ingredient, although e-cigarettes allow users to adjust the level of nicotine they inhale all the way down to none at all. The other main ingredients are fairly common: propylene glycol, which creates the vapor seen, and glycerine, which is used in many foods as a means of preservation.

While hundreds of studies have been conducted on e-cigarettes, there’s no evidence the devices cause cancer. In fact, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Public Health Policy found them to “be much safer than tobacco cigarettes and comparable in toxicity to conventional nicotine replacement products” like nicotine patches and gum.

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But other possible harmful impacts are murkier. Dorothy Hatsukami, associate director for cancer prevention and control at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Center, wants to help answer some of the lingering questions. She is leading a study examining exactly what smokers inhale when they use e-cigarettes and how toxic it is compared to regular cigarettes. Researchers are working with smokers who use only e-cigarettes, as well as those who use them alongside traditional cigarettes.

“There have been a lot of studies done on e-cigarettes, but not many have been done on the exposure of the individual themselves over a period of time,” she said. “There’s such a wide variety of e-cigarettes out on the market and some may have some unknown contaminants. Even though studies have shown there may be minimal amounts of chemicals from the vapor that’s released, there’s no guarantee.”

E-cigarette smokers head to St. Paul

But proposals to regulate their use would make Minnesota one of the toughest states on the growing industry. Oregon currently has the toughest restrictions, effectively banning the sale of two major e-cigarette brands in the state until they are FDA approved or scientific research can prove them safe.

Minnesota already imposes some regulations on e-cigarettes. For instance, Minnesota is the first state to label e-cigarettes as an “other tobacco product.” That means they can tax the devices – Minnesota uses an excise tax of 95 percent slapped on the wholesale cost of the product – and put that revenue directly in the state’s coffers. Minnesota generated about $27 million from excise taxes on other tobacco products in 2013. Minnesota also bans the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

Matt Black will be taking the e-cigarette consumer argument to the Capitol next session on behalf of the Minnesota Vapers Advocacy group and the Minnesota League of Vape Shops, a trade industry group that represents about 50 storeowners. Since officially forming last August, the group has been battling on the local level.

Black, a former smoker who quit by using e-cigarettes, says it should be up to the individual bar or restaurant owner if they want to allow e-cigarettes in their facility. In the case of Duluth, which recently adopted restrictions on e-cigarettes, users are not even allowed to use the devices in e-cigarette shops.

“It doesn’t make sense to ban something or regulate something to death if there is no science giving you a reason to do so,” Black said. “But for many the impulse is, if it looks like smoke it must be smoke.”

What’s more, Black says it doesn’t make sense to ban a product that has helped many people quit smoking. “I don’t think anyone realizes the faces behind this movement. It’s people who want to quit smoking,” Black said. “They are not going out to get kids. We are fighting hard and it’s all because we’ve tried everything and nothing has worked until this. We don’t want to see that taken away from others.”

Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, is an e-cigarette user. He plans to vote against Kahn’s proposal if it comes before him for a vote. The bill’s first stop is in the Health and Human Services Policy Committee, in which the chairwoman, Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, is a co-author.

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“I’ve been struggling every year to quit as a New Year’s resolution. I’ve found e-cigarettes more helpful than anything I’ve tried. At the end of the day there are no studies out there that say this is a harmful substance,” said Metsa. “I would want to make sure it’s as readily available as long as it’s not putting other people in harms way.”