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Down the street from the State Capitol, in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, Vape Pro’s owner Troy Decorsey puffed banana bread-flavored nicotine from his e-cigarette device, which he said helped him quit smoking after 25 years.
“You prove that secondhand vapor is harmful, and I will shut my store down,” he said. “I will leave right now.”
In a crowded hearing room at the Capitol, some legislators said Wednesday that consumers can’t wait decades for proof, the way they did with tobacco.
“This is the Wild West,” Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, told a panel of lawmakers looking at restricting e-cigarettes. “We just don’t know and the consumer doesn’t know. The consumer is being told they’re harmless, but the fact is the consumer doesn’t know because we haven’t regulated it.”
Minnesota’s debate is part of a national battle over e-cigarettes, with some of the nation’s largest cities adding “No Vaping” to signs that already say “No Smoking.” In Minnesota, where 80 percent of the state’s 200 e-cigarette retailers have popped up in the past year, the Legislature is eyeing the idea of regulating them like regular tobacco, including banning their use indoors and in public places. But the measure is being met with resistance from the industry, which says the products are far from being comparable to cigarettes.
E-cigarettes can contain nicotine laced with various flavors, or can be nicotine-free. There is no tobacco, so the devices emit a vapor rather than tobacco smoke. Experts are divided over whether the vapors themselves contain chemicals that are dangerous to inhale.
“Here’s the deal,” Decorsey said. “As soon as they see ‘smoke,’ they assume the worst. Because they don’t smoke, they assume the worst. The problem is that they’re not knowledgeable about it. Nobody is.”
Opponents call electronic cigarettes the next public health menace, geared toward luring kids into nicotine addiction with candy-sweet flavors like “cola,” “milk chocolate” and “bubble gum.”
Backers say they’re a safer alternative to smoking, and in many cases the only tool that has helped lifelong smokers kick the habit, although for many, nicotine is a component of their vaping.
As Minnesota legislators take their first hard look at the devices that have created a burgeoning industry in the state, both sides have reached a consensus: No one knows just how harmful — or harmless — they really are.
Bans, proposed protections
The Minneapolis City Council is considering whether to support a state ban. Duluth and Mankato have already restricted e-cigarette use in public places, St. Paul is looking at prohibiting sales to minors and Hennepin County has included e-cigarettes in its ban on smoking on county property.
Elsewhere, Chicago and New York City have banned e-cigarettes in public places and Los Angeles is a step away from a similar ban.
New Jersey brought e-cigarettes under its smoking ban in 2010. Utah is looking at a bill that would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, and a pro-vaping website counts restrictions or tax hikes on the products pending in California, Maryland, Washington state, Hawaii and the cities of San Francisco and Philadelphia.
On the flip side, Wisconsin and Tennessee are considering measures that would protect e-cigarettes from smoking bans.
More than 100 people, ranging from tobacco lobbyists to health officials and e-cigarette proprietors, packed Wednesday’s House Health and Human Services Policy Committee hearing. Chairwoman Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, twice admonished the crowd that no vaping was allowed in the room, insisting that she could smell it. No one was spotted using a vaping device.
Pat McKone, of the American Lung Association of Minnesota, told Liebling that she might be smelling the devices’ most popular flavor, which she had brought along: lemon blueberry cotton candy. McKone compared the tactics of the e-cigarette makers to Big Tobacco’s marketing to children.
“It’s renormalizing a behavior that we’ve denormalized,” she said. “Do we want this back?”
A passion and a profession
When a friend persuaded Decorsey to try out e-cigarettes, he was so sold on the products that he decided to sell them himself.
Seven months ago, he repurposed the front of his adult bookstore to create Vape Pro’s.
Inside, an array of devices is neatly arranged and labeled in backlit glass cases. A whiteboard displays more than 50 flavors, such as Key Lime and Coconut Candy. No noticeable scent lingers in the air. Customers who decide to try the devices get on-the-spot help from Decorsey, who sets them up with a device and lets them sample flavors. Kevin Cadigan, 49, of St. Paul, selected “Belgian Waffle.”
Cadigan said he hasn’t touched a cigarette in the four weeks since he began using an e-cigarette. A 30-year smoker, he tried and failed to quit cold turkey until a friend introduced him to vaping. He said his first “vape” was caustic, but he quickly grew accustomed and doesn’t think he’ll go back to tobacco cigarettes.
“In the public forums that I have smoked this, sometimes you get a look, but no one’s been offended,” Cadigan said. No one’s said anything, unless it’s management that says ‘We have a policy of no e-cigs here.’ But no one’s said ‘That’s disgusting-smelling.’ ”
Bridget Sutherland, 31, smoked for 16 years. Her boyfriend hated the smell. For now, Sutherland sticks to e-cigarettes with “Cowboy” flavor, which she said tastes like a Marlboro but doesn’t smell like one.
Decorsey says e-cigarettes could actually be the death knell for tobacco products. As e-cigarette sales soar, sales of heavily taxed tobacco products could plummet.
“Uncle Sam’s not making it on tobacco anymore,” he said.
Staff writer Eric Roper contributed to this report.