Tobacco bills fire up advocates, opponents at Capitol

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Bottles of flavors, called 'juice'
Bottles of e-cigarette flavors, called "juice," are seen inside a store in south Minneapolis in June 2013.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News 2013

A pair of tobacco-control measures advanced in the Minnesota Legislature with little opposition Wednesday while a third bill to outlaw flavored vape juices and menthol cigarettes prompted dire warnings on both sides of the debate.

Lawmakers from both parties and in both chambers are pushing for tougher tobacco laws this year, with some gaining a lift from recently enacted federal changes.

There are temporary nationwide restrictions on flavored vaping materials, but some public health advocates worry they don’t go far enough.

Passions ran strongest on the Minnesota flavor ban bill, sponsored by DFL Rep. Laurie Halverson of Eagan, who said “vaping has spread like wildfire.”

“The numbers are growing most among our youth,” said Halverson. “So, it’s now or never.”

Duluth pediatrician Lori DeFrance, president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the candy vaping flavors are attractive to young users, who are more susceptible to addiction.

“Big Tobacco lures them into using tobacco products with flavors like grape, mint and chocolate,” she said. “It is unconscionable and egregious to target our youth, who unwittingly perceive no harm from these products.”

A Minnesota Department of Health official told the committee that the administration of Gov. Tim Walz supports the proposal.

But multiple vaping supply businesses and convenience store owners showed up to speak against the ban.

Josh Hassing, of a Hopkins shop called the Vaping Studio, said such a law would only push the supply chain underground.

“Those in support of this bill have obviously failed to learn from history and have failed to learn that prohibition only leads to bootlegged products on a black market, which negatively impacts public health,” he said.

Lance Klatt, executive director of the Minnesota Service Station and Convenience Store Association, said a ban in Minnesota would hit border stores the hardest because customers would go elsewhere for their supplies. He said illegal smuggling could increase as well.

After more than an hour of testimony, the committee delayed a vote on the bill until Friday.

Earlier, the panel advanced a bill to outlaw smoking in cars when children are present. No one testified in opposition ahead of a split voice vote.

Pat McKone, a tobacco-control advocate at the American Lung Association, said second-hand exposure is a health risk, particularly in such a confined place.

“The individuals most affected by this law will be the ones who really don’t have a choice,” she said. “And that’s children in cars who are subjected to these chemicals and dangers without having the least to say. And I say, it’s time to put an end to that.”

Nine other states have similar laws on the books.

Under the bill by Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, the first offense would come with a warning but repeat violations would include $100 fines.

The Senate judiciary and public safety committee endorsed a bill to raise Minnesota’s purchase age to 21, mirroring the federal shift while giving more clarity to retailers and local law enforcement. A tobacco industry lobbyist spoke in favor of the bill.

Republican Sen. Carla Nelson’s bill would bump up penalties for selling cigarettes, vaping devices or other tobacco-related materials to people under 21.

“This is about keeping those young buyers, those 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from getting these cigarettes for the rest of the kids in the high schools,” she said. “So, it is about access.”

Sixty-four Minnesota cities and counties adopted tobacco 21 ordinances, but the advancing bill would create a uniform policy statewide.

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