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Minnesota lawmakers say they're ready to take on vaping

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Carla Nelson talking about vaping at Capitol
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, talks about the need to increase the legal age for buying tobacco products during a State Capitol news conference on Monday.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Minnesota lawmakers are pledging to get tough on e-cigarettes next year as they try to address growing concerns about the health impact of vaping.

They held two separate news conferences Monday at the State Capitol to outline some of their proposals for the 2020 legislative session.

“We’re not waiting anymore,” said Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan. “There’s no wait and see to see if these things are dangerous. We know they’re dangerous. People across the country and in Minnesota are dying using these products.”

Halverson and other DFL lawmakers plan to renew last session’s effort to increase the age for buying tobacco and tobacco products from 18 to 21. The measure passed in the House but failed to become law. Other DFL-backed proposals for 2020 include a ban on all flavored tobacco products, including menthol, and a ban on online sales.

Halverson said she also wants to look at taxing e-cigarette devices, which are currently exempt.

“Tobacco prices continue to be the best way to prevent youth from ever starting to smoke,” she said.

Altria, the corporation that owns many of the nation’s cigarette and e-cigarette manufacturers, issued a statement saying it strongly supports raising the legal age of purchase. But it did not respond to any of the other proposals.

Earlier in the day, state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, highlighted her plan to raise the age to purchase tobacco. Many cities have already enacted such a law, but anti-smoking advocates want a uniform, statewide approach.

“Seeing what we’ve seen with this vaping epidemic, the dangers, the flavors, I just don’t think there’s anyone that is in the same place that they were a year ago,” Nelson said.

Nelson and other lawmakers are also proposing a school-based program to warn students against the dangers of vaping. They call it the Vaping Awareness and Prevention Act.

Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, who participated in both news conferences, said all schools should address the vaping issue in health classes.

“We need our schools to help,” she said.

Legislators and state officials have been scrambling to address the issue since a recent survey of Minnesota students showed a dramatic increase in the use of e-cigarettes.

Last week, DFL Gov. Tim Walz highlighted the vaping issue during visits to three Minnesota schools. Walz supports a tobacco 21 measure. But following his discussion with students at Hopkins High School, the governor questioned the effectiveness of bans.

“Prohibition does not work,” Walz said. “You can make things more attractive by doing that.”