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Minnesota lawmakers look to outlaw flavored tobacco, ban online vape sales

The efforts come in reaction to dozens of reports of Minnesotans sustaining lung injuries from vaping.

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State Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, holds up a flavored vape solution on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, at a news conference at the Capitol. Halverson and other DFL lawmakers said they want to ban flavored tobacco products, including those used for vaping. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Democrats in the Minnesota House of Representatives on Monday, Oct. 28, proposed banning flavored tobacco products including menthol cigarettes and shutting down online sales of tobacco products and vaping devices.

The proposals were part of an expansive package aimed at curbing the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices among young people in Minnesota. Lawmakers also proposed creating a new state office to protect Minnesota children and teens from vaping and hiking the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The effort to raise awareness about electronic cigarettes and other products used for vaping comes after three Minnesotans died from lung diseases related to vaping and 84 have sustained lung injuries associated with vaping according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

A state survey of Minnesota students found that the number of 11th-grade students who reported that they vape jumped 54% between 2016 and 2019, with one in four 11th graders reporting that they vape. And the number of eighth-grade students who reported vaping within the last days nearly doubled within that timeframe.

"We are seeing a public health epidemic of injury in addition to addiction that I think has kicked this up a notch in terms of what our response is," Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, said. "We're not waiting anymore. There's no wait and see to see if these things are dangerous. We know they're dangerous."

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Halverson and other House Democrats said they'd also seek to tax vaping devices and consider a tax increase on tobacco products as part of the package of proposals.

It's not immediately clear how much of that package will garner bipartisan support in the divided Legislature, but Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, appeared ready to take up measures aimed at reducing vaping on Monday morning.

At a separate news conference, a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers said it hoped to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21 and would seek to require schools to teach about the dangers of vaping as part of the state health curriculum. State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, also said she was also weighing a ban on flavored tobacco products.

The proposal to raise the legal age to buy tobacco has bipartisan, bicameral support and Gov. Tim Walz has said he'll support it. But the proposal didn't get a hearing in the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee earlier this year.

Despite that, Nelson said she felt confident that the growing number of injuries stemming from vaping devices, especially when used to inhale THC products, would influence change at the Capitol. Juul and Altria, two of the largest manufacturers of e-cigarettes, said they support the move to raise the age to buy tobacco products to 21.

“I truly think that this incredible vaping epidemic, no one can be in the same place we were a year ago,” Nelson said. “We know that big problems require all hands on deck, and that’s what you see today."

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Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, has said he's open to the conversation about reducing e-cigarette use among youth.

Fifty-three Minnesota cities and counties around the state have made the move to boost the age to buy tobacco and other products and four communities have outlawed flavored tobacco products at the local level.

"It's no longer lawmakers, it's students saying, 'My lungs hurt. I didn't know,'" State Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, who is carrying some of the bills aimed at curbing youth vaping, said. "We've allowed companies to target them saying it's better than smoking, not only adults are dying, but our kids are getting sick ... Enough is enough, no longer will you target our kids."

At least one Minnesota company has started a campaign to reduce vaping in Minnetonka schools. Marty Davis, president and CEO of Cambria, said the company developed an education campaign administered by students to raise awareness about vaping devices and the impact they can have on a student's health.

“We tell the kids it’s not a shame, you got lied to," he said. "The public didn’t understand it, the parents didn’t parent it, and the government didn't govern it and all of a sudden we have these chemical agent converting tools in the hands of our children under the guise of safety."

While some raised concerns Monday about the House DFL's effort to crack down on vaping while exploring legalizing marijuana for recreational use, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said lawmakers could manage both.

"We need to be able to discuss both things at the same time," Winkler told reporters. "The point is to protect the health and safety and well-being of Minnesotans and our current public safety in regard to cannabis does not help protect the public safety, well-being or health of Minnesotans."

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State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, tells reporters at the Capitol about a set of proposals aimed at reducing youth vaping. One proposal would increase the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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