E-cigarettes fire up controversy in St. Paul

Anti-smoking groups are concerned about the devices, and the city is wrestling with how to categorize and regulate them.

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April 27, 2009: Hon Lik, who quit smoking after his father died of lung cancer, developed e-cigarettes to deliver nicotine with a smoke-free vapor.

Photo: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

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In St. Paul, cigarette regulations don’t stop with the bar and restaurant ban. Single cigarette sales are prohibited, as are novelty lighters with cartoon characters on them.

If you try to sell candy cigarettes you’ll get your hand slapped, as a soda shop discovered a few weeks ago.

Now the city is wrestling with the issue of how to regulate electronic cigarettes — battery-powered devices that resemble tobacco cigarettes but deliver a nicotine hit by inhaling vapor rather than smoke. Some are nicotine-free.

No less an authority than Council Member Dave Thune, a reluctant smoker who has nevertheless championed St. Paul’s smoking bans, thinks that anything tougher than banning e-cigarette sales to minors would be overkill.

“It gives an alternative for people who are trying to quite smoking,” he said Wednesday at the council meeting. “I’ve been trying to switch over to the electronic guys ... having tried them, there’s no smoke. It’s just carbon dioxide.”

But anti-smoking groups warn that the health effects are still largely unknown, that the tobacco-free vapor likely contains harmful chemicals and that e-cigarettes make it harder to police regular smoking bans.

E-cigarettes come in a variety of flavors, ranging from tobacco to cappuccino and caramel apple pie. Some deliver lobelia, an herb that has similar properties to nicotine.

“The tobacco industry is now trying to find alternative ways to deliver nicotine,” said Betsy Brock, research director for the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota. “It’s dangerous the way they’re promoting this as a safe alternative. This has not gone through that scrutiny.”

Last week, the St. Paul City Council withdrew proposed e-cigarette regulations that would have placed on them the same restrictions applied to tobacco cigarettes, including their use in public indoor spaces.

Council President Kathy Lantry said that the intent was not to ban the use of e-cigarettes but to penalize their sale to minors and require a license to sell them, as provided in a 2010 state law that makes underage sale and possession a misdemeanor.

A narrower resolution will return to the council for a public hearing on April 3. “It will allow the city to take adverse action against the license-holder. We need to have a stick,” Lantry said.

More study sought

While many people have yet to use e-cigarettes — let alone know what they are — the numbers are growing, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study found that about 6 percent of all U.S. adults — and about 21 percent of adult smokers— used e-cigarettes in 2011. That was about double the estimates for 2010.

Awareness of e-cigarettes also rose, from about 40 percent of adults in 2010 to about 60 percent in 2011.

The conclusion was that “appropriate public health surveillance of the product is warranted” since it’s unclear whether e-cigarettes will hurt users or, on the other hand, help smokers kick the habit.

“There needs to be a lot more scientific study of these products. We don’t know how much nicotine people are getting from them,” said Chris Tholkes, supervisor of alcohol, tobacco prevention and control for the Minnesota Department of Health.

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