Electronic cigarettes, already banned in many Minnesota buildings, are now being targeted in parks and along trails.

Dakota County is the latest community to consider banning the use of the devices on public property outdoors. More cities and counties are taking up the issue after a change in state law last year prompted them to review regulations. The state prohibited e-cigarette use inside government buildings, public schools and many health care facilities.

"There's kind of this trend emerging of communities looking at electronic cigarettes," said Emily Anderson, program director at the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota.

The rules for e-cigarettes in parks vary depending on a park's location and what agency runs it, much like rules for use of tobacco products. But at least a handful of communities in Minnesota, including Bloomington, Duluth and Eden Prairie, prohibit e-cigarette use in parks. Other cities across the country, including New York City and Los Angeles, have outlawed using the devices in parks.

Last year, Minneapolis considered banning smoking and e-cigarettes in parks. City officials couldn't reach a decision, however, and have not returned to the subject.

Dakota County does not allow smoking in parks. But there are no rules against using e-cigarettes, which heat liquid that often includes nicotine and flavoring. Users inhale the vapor, a process called vaping.

Having two rules for electronic and traditional cigarettes can get confusing, county staff said, and they proposed tweaks this week to the county's smoke free policy.

"Let's keep it simple for people," County Manager Brandt Richardson said.

The debate that ensued was anything but simple.

Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg said she doesn't think smoking an e-cigarette is hurting anyone else, and she wants to "try to allow as many freedoms for citizens" as possible.

E-cigarettes are the free market's response to concerns about secondhand smoke, Commissioner Chris Gerlach said, and unless studies show that the vapor is dangerous, the county shouldn't get in the way.

The board voted 4-3 not to move forward with the change at this point. They plan to discuss the topic with public health staff at a future meeting.

Not much is known about e-cigarettes, and the liquid in them is not regulated, said Bonnie Brueshoff, the county's public health director. She also wants parkgoers to be good role models for the children who play there.

"I know there are a lot of parks throughout the state that are tobacco free, including in Dakota County," Brueshoff said. "But as far as the next step with e-cigarettes, I think that it will happen over time. I think that will be inevitable."

Vaping rules would be difficult to enforce because, like smoking, you have to catch someone in the act, Sheriff Tim Leslie said. Disagreements over enforcement stalled the issue in Minneapolis.

A 'boogey monster'?

People will ignore rules against vaping in parks, Eagan resident Dawn Bielefeldt said.

"If you're an addict, you're going to do it anyway," she said.

The 20-year smoker switched to e-cigarettes a year and a half ago. Since then, she has slowly reduced nicotine. On Friday, she requested a bottle of e-cigarette liquid with no nicotine for the first time.

"The physical change that I went through and saw — you can't make that up," Bielefeldt said. "It makes a difference."

And yet, vaping has been lumped in with big tobacco, and e-cigarettes are painted as a "boogey monster of a product," said Cap O'Rourke, of the Independent Vapor Retailers of Minnesota. "These devices and their emittances are handfuls better or less harmful, from the studies that have been done, than traditional tobacco products — and that's indoors, in confined spaces."

The idea of banning their use in parks strikes a nerve, O'Rourke said. "These are where people go in the community to participate in activities and live a healthy and active lifestyle. And they should be encouraging people to make healthier choices," he said.

For former smokers, e-cigarettes are that healthier choice, he said.

But Lee Unruh, of Eagan, said he'd be happy to see a ban. He's a regular park user and was headed to Holland Lake on Friday with fishing poles and a bucket.

"We're concerned about the ecology," he said. "And parks would be one area where you'd expect to have clean living."