As e-cigs take off, Minn. lawmakers, smokers debate who should write the rules

Smokeless Smoking
"Vaping" at Smokeless Smoking in Bloomington.
Mark Zdechlik/MPR News

Walk into Morrissey's Irish Pub in uptown Minneapolis puffing on an electronic cigarette and the bartender will ask you what you want to drink.

He won't say take your "vaping" outside.

"It hasn't been an issue," said Paul Crilly, the pub's general manager. "We don't get a lot of it, but if we do we just let people go ahead. Nobody has complained."

Anoush Ansari
Anoush Ansari of Hemisphere Restaurant Partners says "vaping" is not appropriate in his restaurants.
Mark Zdechlik/MPR News

Electronic cigarette users are firing up their devices in all kinds of places people wouldn't consider lighting a conventional cigarette. That's inspired moves in the Minnesota Legislature to regulate "vaping" -- the vaporizing of nicotine -- in the same way smoking is restricted.

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People who inhale vaporized nicotine say it's harmless and a far cry from smoking. They also argue e-cigarettes don't need government regulation.

Critics say no one knows about potential risks because no long-term studies have been done.

Vaping is not allowed inside the Tavern Grill in Woodbury. People have become accustomed to smoke-free environments in the six-plus years since Minnesota banned smoking in bars and restaurants, and customers don't want to be near it whether it's smoke or concentrated mist, said Anoush Ansari, a managing partner of Hemisphere Restaurant Partners, which runs Tavern Grill and six other establishments that prohibit vaping.

Today's Question: Who should decide where e-cigs are OK?

When people pull out e-cigarettes at the bar, "we kindly ask them to enjoy it outside or on the patio," Ansari said. "In a restaurant setting, I don't see it as appropriate."

The president of the Minn. Vapers Advocacy Group
The president of the Minnesota Vapers Advocacy Group, Matt Black, says e-cigs helped him quit smoking and that vaping is harmless and shouldn't be regulated in the way cigarettes are.
Mark Zdechlik/MPR News

Even so, Ansari says he thinks deciding whether to allow e-cigarette use should be up to businesses, not the government.

That's essentially been the debate at the state Capitol.

The House voted to ban e-cigarettes in schools and prevent kids from buying them.

The Senate voted to treat them like conventional cigarettes, and ban their use in indoor public places. That's the approach backed by the American Lung Association in Minnesota.

"We're not advocating that e-cigarettes be totally banned or made illegal. What we're asking is that or what we're suggesting is that e-cigarettes have the same common sense regulations that we've used for regular cigarettes," lung association spokesman Bob Moffitt said. "It just makes good sense."

E-cigarettes users, however, take issue with the comparison to conventional cigarettes.

"We're not smoking anymore. We don't smell like smoke anymore. We're not blowing smoke into the air anymore, so we don't want to be treated like smokers," said Matt Black, president of Minnesota Vapers Advocacy, a group that formed last year to head off legislation clamping down on vaping.

Black, 32, said he quit smoking conventional cigarettes the day he started vaping about a year ago and that many other Minnesotans are taking a similar path.

Many e-cigarette users, he warned, will go back to smoking regular cigarettes if they have to live by the same rules as conventional smokers, worsening public health.