- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - After Gov. Mark Dayton publicly broke with his Health Department commissioner over the extent of regulation needed on electronic cigarettes, lawmakers took a step Wednesday toward removing a proposed ban on indoor use in public places.

To the dismay of some public health advocates, Dayton came out against legislative efforts to lump e-cigarettes in with conventional cigarettes by barring their use in public buildings and most businesses. His comments directly contradict Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger’s testimony at a Senate committee meeting Monday.

“After we came down pretty hard on smokers last session, that’s probably enough for this biennium,” Dayton told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, referring to tobacco tax increases last year. “We did enough to smokers last session.”

Dayton said he would sign a bill to restrict children’s ability to buy e-cigarettes and to keep the product out of schools, but he would likely oppose making them subject to the indoor air law.

A bill that would have done both was awaiting a Senate vote, but it was pulled back to the committee stage where the parts Dayton objected to could be stripped. Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, said it made sense to “capitulate a little bit to the governor’s wishes and keep the e-cigarette bill alive.”

Sen. Kathy Sheran, the bill’s sponsor, was startled by the apparent reversal within the administration. She said she would keep pushing for the broader restrictions.

“If there’s an instinct that young people should be protected from second-hand vapor, then that instinct should indicate that there should be a reason for protection of the general public, not just youth,” said Sheran, DFL-Mankato.

E-cigarettes are thin, cylindrical devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution that users inhale. Unlike regular cigarettes, they don’t emit smoke or tar, but there is debate over whether the vapor is clean or laden with chemicals on the way out. The Food and Drug Administration is conducting studies on e-cigarettes but has given no indication when findings will be ready.

At Monday’s Senate committee meeting, where the indoor air portion narrowly survived, Ehlinger said the vapor-emitting devices could undermine the state’s indoor smoking restrictions and glamorize a habit he believes could lead to a new generation of smokers.

“The state has a responsibility to act on this. This is a threat to the health of the public,” Ehlinger, a doctor by training, told the committee, lining up fully behind broad restrictions.

Dayton told the Star Tribune that he’s not convinced there is definitive evidence that secondhand vapor poses a danger similar to secondhand smoke.

“Probably everything that you put into the air other than oxygen is some detriment to somebody,” the Democratic governor said.

Michael Schommer, a spokesman for Ehlinger, said the health commissioner was “providing input from a public health perspective. The governor’s perspective is his own.” Schommer said Ehlinger and Dayton were aware of each other’s positions, though he declined to say whether the commissioner knowingly took a stance on the administration’s behalf that was contrary to the governor’s.

Dayton declined an interview request from The Associated Press, but issued a written statement to the AP defending the split on the issue.

“I do not require my commissioners to agree with me on every issue, and I specifically gave Commissioner Ehlinger my approval to take, as the Commissioner of Health, the position he believes is right,” Dayton said.

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