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Our view: State can follow Duluth on e-cigs

E-cigarettes are now “a major public health concern,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet some Minnesota lawmakers continue to drag their feet in following Duluth’s lead by enacting responsible and reasonable regulations.

On Thursday, a CDC report said calls to poison-control centers related to

e-cigarette use skyrocketed from just one call per month on average in 2010 to 200 per month this year. Though e-cigarettes account for less than 2 percent of tobacco sales, they now account for more than 40 percent of poison-center calls. And more than half of those calls involve children younger than 5 years old. The report’s author called the findings “dramatic.”

In Duluth we can say, “We told you so” (though, of course, we wouldn’t), after becoming the first city in Minnesota to ban e-cigarettes indoors where tobacco use already was prohibited, among other restrictions and regulations. At least seven other Minnesota cities and a county took similar action since Duluth’s historic September vote. Another three cities and two counties still are considering measures.

As welcome as that response has been from local governments, laws that change from city to city and county to county aren’t nearly as desirable as strong, uniform laws enacted at the state and even federal levels. The e-cigarette industry is booming. Yet it remains largely unregulated with politicians scrambling to keep up. Legitimate questions and concerns about the unknown health and safety risks of e-cigarette use just keep mounting. True leadership is needed in St. Paul and in D.C.

But last week the Minnesota House dropped a measure to incorporate

e-cigarettes into the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act. The Senate version of the bill that would finally provide statewide control on e-cigarette use and availability maintains the indoor-air-act provision. The measure also requires a license to sell e-cigarettes, mandates they be kept behind store counters, includes fines for selling to minors and prohibits e-cigarettes from school grounds.

E-cigarettes are not being outlawed. Until we know just what’s being “vaped” when those willing to take the risk use e-cigarettes, keeping the vapor and products away from the public, and especially kids, has to be seen as logical.  

Researchers have found  metal and silicate particles along with the nicotine in e-cigarettes. Are they at levels so low as not to be dangerous? The problem is we simply don’t know. There hasn’t been anywhere near enough research and there has been little to no oversight to assure safety.

But that’s not stopping the use of e-cigarettes, including by those trying to quit real cigarettes, never mind far more effective and proven cessation methods are out there. Even more troubling is the use of e-cigarettes by children. The percentage of U.S. middle school and high school students taking their first drags on e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, the CDC announced in September. In 2012, more than 1.78 million middle school and high school students nationwide had tried e-cigarettes, often a precursor to tobacco cigarettes.

And no wonder.

E-cigarettes, as addictive, dangerous and harmful to health as they may be, are actively being marketed to kids, just the way tobacco cigarettes used to be. Remember Joe Camel and the portrayal of smoking as cool and hip and what everyone who’s anyone was doing? This time — powered by nearly $21 million in advertising in 2012, according to the New York Times — it’s kid-friendly flavors such as watermelon and cookies-and-cream milkshake and the portrayal of e-cigarette use as cool that’s hooking youngsters.

The Minnesota legislative session is a short one this year, but it isn’t over yet; it’s not too late to include e-cigarettes in the clean indoor air act. And it’s not too late for reasonable and responsible regulations to protect public health — at least until comprehensive testing can be completed and we know for sure what we’re dealing with. What we know now is that e-cigarette use is “a major health concern” that demands to be taken quite seriously.

“Although the bill has come a long way in a very short period of time, there is still a lot that can happen,” Jill Doberstein of Duluth, the manager of tobacco prevention and control programs for the American Lung Association in Minnesota, told the News Tribune Opinion page last week. “Because we know this is an election year for House members across the state, the strong support for policies regulating e-cigarettes … is a wining issue for any candidate.”