On May 16, 2007, Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the "Freedom To Breathe Act" banning smoking statewide in all public indoor areas.
The bill went into effect Oct. 1, 2007, and since then, smokers have been relegated to huddling outside buildings when they need to light up.
A new product, Fifty-One, brings smokers back inside, allowing them to get their nicotine through an electronic device.
"It's new technology, but there's been a lot of buzz around the United States - it's coast-to-coast now," said Terry Loeffler, director of sales and marketing for Henry's Foods, Inc., supplier of the e-cigarettes in Bemidji. "It's a great alternative to cigarette smoking."
The e-cigarette looks like a conventional filter-tipped cigarette. It consists of a lithium ion battery in the white part of the cylinder, a cartridge of nicotine and a heating vapor coil in the "filter." At the end where the glowing ash would be is a red LED that brightens as the smoker inhales.
Fifty-One users inhale nicotine distilled from tobacco and flavored with vanilla, chocolate, menthol and coffee. The devices also come in tobacco flavor for those who like the taste of cigarettes. Smokers inhale the nicotine and exhale a cloud of "smoke," which is actually water vapor.
"Right now, smokers have to breathe in all the carcinogens, and there's 2,000 of them," Loeffler said. "Now there's a way to get the nicotine without all that other garbage."
Smokers using the e-cigarette satisfy their cravings for nicotine without inhaling any of the carcinogens in tobacco smoke. They also satisfy their hand-to-mouth ritual, enjoy the visual effect of exhaling a cloud and avoid the "ashtray mouth" sensation of real cigarettes.
"There's no first- or second-hand smoke," Loeffler said. "Nicotine is no more harmful to you, in and of itself, than caffeine is. It's just a better delivery system."
Not so, said Dr. Daniel DeKrey, medical director for the North Country Regional Hospital Respiratory Therapy Department.
"This is separate from cigarette smoke," DeKrey said. "This is nicotine itself. It affects several receptors (in the brain). That's what causes the addiction."
DeKrey said nicotine is a stimulant that causes, among other health hazards, heart disease, hardening of the arteries and elevated blood pressure.
"Nicotine is not a safe drug," DeKrey said. "Caffeine is a pretty safe drug."
Loeffler said the Fifty-One products are available in nicotine delivery strengths of zero milligrams and 4, 6, 8, 12 and 16 mg. He said Fifty-One retailers - in Bemidji, Pete's Place South and West and Cenex South - require identification showing the purchaser is 18. As for the name Fifty-One, he said the product is based in Florida with five owners and one purpose.
Henry's Foods Director of Sales Mike Loge said he is a non-smoker, so when he demonstrates the Fifty-One, he uses the zero mg cartridge.
However, Loeffler said Henry's Foods is not selling the e-cigarette as a smoking cessation device, just as an alternative to traditional cigarettes.
"I think it's going to revolutionize the tobacco industry," he said.
He said a starter kit, which consists of batteries, refill cartridges and battery charger, costs $95, about the price of two cartons of cigarettes. The cartridges cost $15.95 for a box of five, which works out to the equivalent of about $1.60 per pack of traditional cigarettes, he said.
"The public is very excited about it," Loeffler said. "People are addicted to nicotine. It's too bad, but (with Fifty-One) you get no carcinogens, no carbon monoxide."
Loeffler cited a couple of arguments he has heard against the device. For example, he said someone using an e-cigarette in a bar might give someone else the idea that it's OK to light up. In that case, he said, the bartender should just remind the smoker of the law and explain the new nicotine delivery device. He also said he doubted that people would begin using the Fifty-One if they weren't already smokers.
"Why would anyone who doesn't have the nicotine habit, with what they know today, want to pick one up?" he said.
DeKrey cited statements by the World Health Organization, Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration that e-cigarettes may be marketed as safer than cigarettes, but no peer-reviewed studies prove that. He said Health Canada also expressed concern about the possibility of nicotine poisoning.
Loeffler said the Fifty-One doesn't delivery anywhere nearly enough nicotine to poison a person.
"Nicotine poisoning is at the end of the spectrum," DeKrey said. "You still have all the cardiac effects."
He said he knows many people who have died of those effects. "I would know ... I've been at their bedsides many times," he said.
For those who want to quit smoking, DeKrey said nicotine replacement therapies, such as a nicotine patch and gum can help. But, he added, a medication, Chantrix, which blocks the effects of nicotine on the nervous system and prevents the stimulant effect, has been useful for some people.