- Associated Press - Monday, May 5, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota lawmakers moved Monday to regulate the sale and use of electronic cigarettes with measures particularly fashioned to stop children from gaining access. But it remained unclear if anti-smoking groups would achieve their ultimate objective this year: To classify the devices like standard tobacco products.

The House advanced limitations on the fast-spreading devices as part of broader health policy legislation that passed by a comfortable margin. The bill would expressly bar sales to minors, outlaw their use on school property, prohibit their sales from mall kiosks and require their nicotine liquid come in child-resistant packaging to prevent poisoning. The bill also bars e-cigarette use in state-owned buildings.

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 of when the findings will be ready.

Democratic Rep. Laurie Halverson, the chief House proponent of e-cigarette restrictions, hailed the steps as a positive first effort for lawmakers trying to get their hands around cigarette substitutes that burst onto the scene within the last decade.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said lawmakers don’t know enough about the health effects of e-cigarettes to impose expansive regulations.

“If we really want to bring government in to coddle the people of our state we should start where people are actually harmed,” Drazkowski said as he resisted the packaging regulation. “No one has died from this. We’re not even aware of whether this is a problem.”

His assessment drew a sharp response from Halverson.

“To say it’s an issue in search of a problem because we don’t yet have a body count is ghoulish and is irresponsible,” she said.

The House didn’t attempt to define e-cigarettes in the same light as standard cigarettes, which would make them subject to clean indoor air laws.

A companion Senate bill does include the indoor air language. By an 11-8 vote in the Senate Finance Committee earlier Monday, supporters retained the provision barring e-cigarette use wherever standard smokes are prohibited.

“It just asks that the risks that are unknown are not imposed on other people in public places,” said Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato.

Another showdown is expected when the bill hits the Senate floor, which could be this week.

Opponents of the strict regulations said lawmakers shouldn’t get so far ahead of the science. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would sign a bill to restrict children’s ability to buy e-cigarettes and to keep them out of schools, but he has said plans to make them subject to the indoor air law could go too far.

“I’m not sure I’m willing to call this activity smoking at this point,” said Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud.


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