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Our View: County up next in quest for clear air

Next up in the quest for clear air that’s safe from the poisons found in cigarette smoke and from the unknowns of e-cigarette vapors: St. Louis County.

The county has a public hearing scheduled for 9:40 a.m. Tuesday at the courthouse in Duluth before the elected board of commissioners can seize an opportunity to ban e-cigarette use in public places where smoking already is prohibited. That includes stores and places of employment. The county also is considering forbidding tobacco “sampling” in licensed tobacco shops, a practice too often abused to the point where legal sampling becomes illegal smoking.

In 2013, the city of Duluth was the first local government in Minnesota to apply clean-indoor-air laws to electronic cigarettes. Since then, 22 other Minnesota cities and seven counties wisely followed, including Cloquet, Hermantown and Ely. A total of 40 Minnesota cities now ban sampling.

“People value clean indoor air,” Jill Doberstein, a program manager for tobacco control for the American Lung Association in Duluth, said in an interview yesterday with the News Tribune editorial board. “Yes, it is being addressed at the state level, but we don’t have the political will right now. … We have to keep working at the local level.”

And quickly, please. While Minnesota’s smoking rate is the lowest ever recorded at 14.4 percent — an impressive drop from nearly 50 percent in 1999, the result of public education about how smoking and secondhand smoke harm health, increased tobacco taxes that have made lighting up unaffordable, and clean-indoor-air laws — the use of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, among high school students has grown: Nearly a third of high school students and 7.7 percent of middle school students have tried an e-cigarette, according to the 2014 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey. That’s a total of 85,900 Minnesota kids, about the equivalent of Duluth’s total population.

As troubling as that is, the rapid rise of sixth- through 12th-graders using e-cigs really should come as little surprise. The battery-operated, nicotine-delivering, smoking simulators are actively 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, free of the restraints applied to tobacco advertising and marketing, e-cigarettes are being sold with kid-friendly flavors such as watermelon and cookies-and-cream milkshake and with the portrayal of e-cigarette use as fun.

The troubling thing with e-cigarettes is we don’t know what’s in them. They’re not regulated in any way. They’re not FDA-approved. It’s no wonder that last year the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called them “a major public health concern.” A CDC report even 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 a year ago.

No one is talking about outlawing e-cigarettes entirely. Not yet. Government regulators are still scrambling to catch up. Until they do, until they can tell us 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, sensible and erring on the side public health and safety. Erring the other way would be reckless and irresponsible.

“I have two young children (who) have never seen smoking indoors. I’d like to keep it that way,” Doberstein said. Allowing e-cigarette use in indoor public spaces re-normalizes smoking. It’s a dangerous step backward that can’t be allowed.

“There’s good momentum in the right direction,” said Anne Mason of ClearWay Minnesota, the independent smoking-cessation nonprofit.

St. Louis County can be next to be part of that.