E-cigarette measure fails first reading

Published 9:14 pm Monday, March 17, 2014

Council could pass moratorium next month

The Austin City Council couldn’t unanimously pass an e-cigarette moratorium during its meeting Monday night, but the issue isn’t dead.

The council voted 4-3, with Council Members Steve King, Janet Anderson, Roger Boughton and Jeremy Carolan in favor and Judy Enright, Jeff Austin and Michael Jordal against. An ordinance for a moratorium requires a unanimous vote during its first reading and a simple majority on its second reading.

Council members could enact a ban on e-cigarette use in public places and businesses for up to one year at its April 7 meeting, which is likely to happen.

Email newsletter signup

Monday’s vote came after several local health experts pleaded with the council to enact the moratorium and prevent people from using e-cigarettes in public as health officials across the nation have yet to find out what’s inside them.

E-cigarettes have been on the market for about five years and haven’t undergone thorough testing by the Food and Drug Administration. They are filled with an unknown amount of nicotine and other chemicals that are heated to produce vapor inhaled through the e-cigarette.

E-cigarettes are technically considered a tobacco product and therefore are illegal for minors to Purchase. Yet there’s little regulation on where or how they can be sold, according to county health officials and a member of the American Lung Association, who gave a presentation on e-cigarettes to the council last month.

“It’s not just harmless water vapor,” Debra Skare, a tobacco treatment specialist, told the council. “There are chemicals in there.”

Skare shared stories from her patients, some of whom tried to use e-cigarettes to quit smoking. She said patients have told her e-cigarettes have caused several issues, from burned throats and an overdose of nicotine to one husband who caused his wife to have several asthma attacks whenever he exhaled e-cigarette vapor into the room.

“Needless to say, she sent him outside,” Skare said.

Austin High School Counselor Thor Berglund, a member of the Austin Area Drug Task Force, told the council he was concerned by tobacco companies trying to market the device to children and asked for the moratorium to prevent Austin youth from being exposed to e-cigarettes.

Since e-cigarettes haven’t been regulated like regular cigarettes, companies can still market the electronic device using cartoon characters and enticing flavors, which health experts say is more of an appeal to youth than anything else.

“They’re just basically getting away with it because of that loophole,” Berglund told the council.

Their arguments did little to persuade the moratorium’s most vocal critics. Jordal and Austin firmly stood against the moratorium as they believe the issue isn’t something local government should control.

“I’m speaking about liberty and freedom, which is really what it comes down to for me,” Jordal said during the meeting.

Jordal said he is against smoking but he doesn’t believe the council should dictate what businesses do when it comes to e-cigarettes.

“Most businesses will probably tell people they can’t use them,” he said.

Enright was also against the moratorium, though council members initially thought she would support the measure. She said she voted against the e-cigarette ban because she wants more residents to practice personal responsibility.

Yet the speakers got through to Carolan, who said he changed his vote because he realized how little people knew about e-cigarettes.

Anderson said the discussion only furthered her support for an e-cigarette moratorium.

“I think there are serious health risks and that caution is the best route, so therefore the moratorium is the best decision,” she said.

Mayor Tom Stiehm expressed concern with the council’s vote during the meeting, as he was afraid if the council didn’t unanimously pass the moratorium, it could send a message to area youth that it was OK to use e-cigarettes.

“You know that’s what’s going to happen,” he said.

Stiehm is a former Austin police officer and a member of the Austin Area Drug Task Force and supports an e-cigarette moratorium.

Austin isn’t the only Minnesota community looking at the issue. Duluth has banned e-cigarettes in public places while Waseca is debating a similar ordinance. Eden Prairie recently banned e-cigarette and hookah lounges, and North Mankato recently put its e-cigarette debate on hold to see what state legislators decide. More than 100 cities and three states ban e-cigarette use in tobacco-free environments as of January 2014, according to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights.

Minnesota legislators are discussing whether to add e-cigarettes to the state Clean Indoor Air Act, which would ban e-cigarettes in public places similar to other tobacco products. The measure has already passed a Senate committee.

Though some council members say the state’s decision will render local discussion moot, proponents of an e-cigarette moratorium say Austin’s decision could positively affect state and federal public policy, similar to the council’s decision several years ago to put pseudoephedrine, a chemical used in methamphetamine, behind the counter at area stores.

“Austin has been innovative in the past,” Anderson said. “That in turn can influence the state legislature. If enough cities do something, maybe it’ll motivate them to take action more quickly.”