An ordinance that would would ban tobacco sales, including nicotine vaporizer or e-cigarette devices, to those under 21 received a unanimous vote in a Minneapolis City Council committee Monday, after a 2½-hour public hearing in which some defended vaping as an alternative to cigarettes.
In the packed hearing, 21 people voiced support for the ordinance. Many wore green T-shirts with the hashtag #T21MN on it. An equal number warned that the measure would have negative effects on their business, or on youth smoking.
Khalid Haidari, 58, owner of Pantry Food Market, pleaded with the council’s public health, environment, civil rights and engagement committee not to pass the ordinance. He called the measure “another nail in our business coffin.”
“[Smoking] is a human choice,” he said. “Why do you want to take that choice away from people?”
Several speakers shared their personal experiences of starting to smoke at a young age. When they decided to quit, they said, they turned to e-cigarettes, which helped them quit smoking tobacco.
Mackenzie Jensen, 22, started smoking when he was 15. A day after he turned 18, he said he decided to quit smoking and found a “healthier alternative” that helped him kick the habit. He began vaping.
“That day changed my life,” he said.
But Jensen acknowledged that “anything you put in your body besides oxygen is not healthy.”
Health officials told the council the use of e-cigarettes among students is rapidly increasing.
In 2017, more than 19 percent of Minnesota high school students used e-cigarettes, up notably from three years ago, while use of traditional cigarettes is at an all-time low of 9 percent, said Laura Oliven, tobacco control manager for the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). The most common retail outlet where youth get their e-cigarettes is vape shops.
“We consider the rapid growth and popularity of youth e-cigarette use as a serious public health problem,” Oliven said.
In response to the widespread use of e-cigarettes among students, the Minnesota Department of Education and the MDH have sent a joint letter to more than 1,000 school administrators warning them about the dangers of e-cigarettes, which are easy to conceal and have slick designs that are attractive to youth.
“No amount of nicotine is safe for youth, and it has negative implications for learning, memory, attention and future addiction,” Oliven said.
Nayeli Hernandez, 17, of Patrick Henry High School, is a member of the Minneapolis Youth Congress, which did a survey from three Minneapolis schools about their tobacco usage. Of the 51 students who responded to the survey, 53 percent said they used e-cigarettes.
“They do it to seem cooler or they think it helps them wash away some pain,” Hernandez said in an interview after the hearing.
Angie Griffith, co-owner of Smokeless Smoking, which sells vaping products, said her business has been regulated on both the federal and local level as a tobacco product. That has created problems for the business, she said.
“We are a different product,” Griffith said. “But our products look so much like smoking, that visual stigma has hurt us very badly.”
After a brief discussion, the council voted to move forward.
“While some people say smoking is a choice, addiction itself is not a choice,” said Council Member Andrew Johnson, who co-authored the proposal with Council Member Jeremiah Ellison. “It’s a disease.”
“The easiest way to help people quit tobacco is to ensure that they never start in the first place,” Johnson said.
The full council will consider the ordinance May 25. If approved, it’s expected to go into effect in October.