Austin, Minnesota, City Council exploring regulation of e-cigarettes

AUSTIN, Minnesota , February 19, 2014 () – The Austin City Council will explore regulating electronic cigarettes after hearing during its work session Tuesday how little information there is on the alternative tobacco product.

The council will learn more about local e-cigarette regulations and consider a moratorium on e-cigarette sales after listening to Karissa Studier, Mower County's State Health Improvement Program coordinator, and Erin Simmons, from the American Lung Association.

E-cigarettes have been on the market for about five years and haven't undergone thorough testing by the Food and Drug Administration. They are filled with an unknown amount of nicotine and other chemicals, which are heated to produce a vapor which a person inhales through the e-cigarette. While e-cigarettes are technically considered a tobacco product and therefore are illegal for minors to purchase, there's often little regulation on where or how they can be sold, or the nicotine bottles that come with them. They don't fall under Minnesota's Clean Indoor Air Act as there have been relatively few tests to determine what's in e-cigarette nicotine.

"There's absolutely no regulations on them," Studier told the council.

Studier and Simmons also said studies by the Center for Disease Control have shown middle and high school students are increasingly buying and using e-cigarettes, which can be charged using an outlet or a laptop and may look like a pen or other item. Some e-cigarettes come in different colors and flavors, such as candy or chocolate, which health officials say is also geared toward younger users.

"We have an e-cigarette that has Hello Kitty on it," Simmons said.

E-cigarettes are facing increased attention as cities and towns decide to regulate e-cigarettes the same way they would other tobacco products. Some cities have outright banned them while others have prohibited e-cigarette use in public spaces or on government property.

North Mankato officials are considering ordinances to regulate e-cigarette sales and ban them from public spaces, while State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, proposed a bill this session to add e-cigarettes to the state's Clean Indoor Air Act.

Yet some business owners say the e-cigarette debate is being blown out of proportion. Sam Wazwaz, owner of Austin Tobacco, said e-cigarettes don't have secondhand smoke and are generally safer to use compared to regular cigarettes.

"It's not even close to regular tobacco," he said. "All it does is basically give you the habit of having something to blow on."

Wazwaz compared e-cigarettes to the nicotine patch in terms of nicotine delivery, but Studier and Simmons say the lack of regulations on e-cigarettes make that difficult to prove.

Council members expressed concern over e-cigarettes, which can be found at various shops in the area including Walmart and Hy-Vee, and other places, and vowed to explore the issue. They could also consider a moratorium on e-cigarette sales for up to one year.

Mayor Tom Stiehm said it is too early to say what the council would do, but said the council appeared likely to take action if members found e-cigarettes to be a public hazard. He said the lack of information on e-cigarettes was concerning and could prompt the council to take action.

"When in doubt, regulate," he said.

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