ST. PAUL, Minn. — A plan to classify electronic cigarettes in the same fashion as the conventional kind survived its toughest committee test Monday and now awaits a Senate floor vote.
The bill cleared the Senate Commerce Committee after an attempt to weaken the proposed regulations failed on a 7-6 vote. It would add so-called vaping to state indoor air laws that bar tobacco use in public places and most businesses.
The e-cigarette devices heat a liquid nicotine solution. Users inhale a vapor but they don't emit the chemicals, tar or odor of regular cigarettes.
Product advocates say it sends the wrong signal to treat them equally before adequate scientific studies determine health risks. Anti-smoking groups argue that until research proves otherwise, policymakers need to watch out for those who could be exposed to secondhand danger from emissions.
Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger told the committee that the chemicals used in e-cigarettes and the habit-forming qualities of the devices are concerning enough to take action now.
"We have enough evidence now to show we are going in the wrong direction with e-cigarettes," Ehlinger said.
No one spoke against provisions that would impose criminal penalties in cases where the devices are sold to minors. An unsuccessful amendment would have limited the restrictions on use to public buildings while letting businesses make individual decisions.
Tom Briant, a lobbyist for Minnesota tobacco wholesalers, said lumping e-cigarettes with their smoke-producing cousins sends a signal to the public that they pose equal dangers.
"There is no tobacco in an e-cigarette," Briant said. "There is no burning, only heating."
A proposal awaiting a vote in the House doesn't go as far. It would allow for restrictions in state-owned buildings and leave it to local governments to decide whether to go further. If both bills pass, any differences would probably be left to a conference committee to sort out.