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City, county consider new e-cigarette regulations

Beltrami County and the city of Bemidji may soon have new regulations that govern the use and sale of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes. (MINNESOTA PUBLIC RADIO PHOTO)

By Zach Kayser

BEMIDJI — Beltrami County and the city of Bemidji may soon have new regulations that govern the use and sale of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes.

Proponents of the new technology say it’s a less harmful way to get a nicotine fix and can help smokers kick the habit altogether. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there hasn’t been enough research done on any adverse health effects users might encounter, and that users have no way of knowing just how much nicotine they’re consuming when they "vape," or vaporize small vials of chemicals.

City and county officials, as well as local law enforcement, met Thursday to discuss the issue of how to deal with the e-cigarettes that are being sold and used locally.

City and county officials agreed Thursday they will investigate further the possibility of adding provisions for e-cigarettes to existing laws regarding regular tobacco cigarettes. There appeared to be two areas of regulation that might be created: language regarding the licensing of local businesses to sell e-cigarettes, and provisions that would affect individuals’ right to use them in public.

The sale of conventional cigarettes now is regulated separately by the county and city in each of their jurisdictions. Some e-cigarettes sold in Bemidji are already covered under the city’s tobacco sales ordinance because the nicotine in them is a tobacco derivative, said Al Felix, city attorney. However, Felix said other brands of e-cigs out there aren’t covered by city law since their nicotine isn’t from tobacco.

"Obviously, to be comprehensive — to address things that aren’t tobacco-related or derive from tobacco origins — we’d have to tweak our ordinance…" he said.

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said although she wants more knowledge on e-cigarettes, it still makes sense to at least look into regulating them.

"I am interested in learning more about the issue, which is why I encouraged a discussion with the county," Albrecht said. "It seems reasonable to consider their regulation."

The city doesn’t have any of its own anti-smoking laws and instead goes by what regulations the county and state have put in place, Felix said.

Beltrami County is looking at changing its ordinance on tobacco smoking to include e-cigarettes so they would be allowed in any place regular cigarettes are allowed, and banned in any place regular smoking is banned, County Administrator Kay Mack said Thursday. However, she said she wasn’t speaking for the entire board of commissioners as she, Sheriff Phil Hodapp and Commissioner Joe Vene were the only county officials who attended Thursday’s e-cigarettes meeting. Vene confirmed that the potential addition to county laws would treat "vaping" with an e-cigarette the same way as lighting up the old-fashioned way.

"We’ll be working with the city to incorporate (e-cigarettes) in our no-smoking language," Vene said. "There will be places, of course, where people can use these products and other places, not."

The next step in any potential ordinance changes would be for the county attorney to draft new language and submit it to the board, who would then hold a series of three public hearings where citizens could comment on the new law, Mack said.