Our Opinion: State should fully address e-cigs

Published 9:33 am Monday, March 16, 2015

The Austin City Council is expected to pass a ban on e-cigarettes in public places tonight, but it shouldn’t have to.

The council voted 4-3 on March 2 for the ban, but the measure needed to pass unanimously during its first reading. Council members can approve the policy on a majority vote at tonight’s meeting. Barring a change of heart, it’s expected to pass.

What’s surprising is why the council is discussing the issue at all. In 2007, the Minnesota Clean Indoor Act banned tobacco use in almost all indoor public places, including workplaces. But the act addresses e-cigarettes differently than traditional tobacco, presenting a troubling double-standard and a mixed message.

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In 2014, the act was amended to include electronic smoking devices — sort of. While the amendment banned e-cigarettes in public buildings, public colleges, daycares and health care facilities, it allows them in bars, restaurants, private workplaces, hotels and stores.

This is where the gray area comes. One common claim is that e-cigarettes help smokers quit. But health and public policy experts can’t say for certain whether the electronic devices are a good thing or a bad thing overall, whether they help smokers kick the habit or are a gateway to ordinary paper-and-tobacco cigarettes.

However, Karissa Studier, a registered nurse with Mower County, told the council earlier this month that recent research showed more students were using e-cigarettes and more harmful chemicals were found in some e-cigarette vapor.

And e-cigarettes are becoming a big concern for schools. Thor Bergland, a counselor at Austin High School, told the council he is encountering more students using e-cigarettes. According to an annual government survey of more than 41,000 students, e-cigarettes have surpassed traditional smoking in popularity among teens.

But its easy to see why. The uncertainty surrounding e-cigarettes and the differing state laws send the message that e-cigarettes are preferable to regular tobacco.

Such laws and rules should be all or nothing: Either e-cigarettes are considered tobacco products or they aren’t.

While we support the city’s ban, we hope the state will come to a consensus and treat all tobacco products equally.