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Council scrutinizes e-cig sales

BEMIDJI — An expansion of the city’s ordinance regulating the sale of tobacco to include e-cigarettes had its first public trial by fire Monday before the Bemidji City Council.

The addition would expand the licensing requirement for tobacco sales to include the sale of e-cigarettes. It would prohibit their sale to minors, and require the city to conduct yearly compliance checks using undercover minors as it does for establishments selling regular cigarettes.

Several council members wanted changes to the draft’s language, in particular a section council member Reed Olson called “rather draconian.” The section Olson was referring to would expand the city’s legal definition of “smoking” to include “carrying an operational electronic delivery device.”

Olson feared the language, if unchanged, would essentially criminalize the possession of e-cigarettes.

“I think we that we need to be very careful with this… that we understand what we’re talking about when we talk about e-cigarettes,” he said. “I feel like it is quite possible that an electronic cigarette is a lot healthier for you than a regular cigarette… and so to treat it more harshly than we treat tobacco I think is a danger and… potentially asking for a lawsuit against the city and seems completely unnecessary…” 

City Manager John Chattin agreed that the language could be interpreted that way, but added that it was not the intent of the ordinance to criminalize possession of e-cigarettes.

Monday was merely the first reading of the proposed amendment to the ordinance regulating tobacco sales. No vote was taken.

Although it regulates the sale of conventional cigarettes through licensing, the city does not have its own ordinance regulating the use of regular cigarettes and instead follows the Beltrami County law governing their use in public places. The Beltrami County Board of Commissioners is discussing the regulation of e-cigarette use.

 Matt Bewley, owner of Northern Vapes, the first store in Bemidji to specialize in the sale of e-cigarettes, was present at the meeting but did not speak publicly.

After the meeting, Bewley said he also took issue with the section that defined smoking as carrying an e-cigarette. He added that the council should not equate using e-cigarettes with smoking conventional cigarettes.

Bewley said customers could choose the nicotine level in the e-cigarettes they buy. He was not sure if the e-cigarettes he sells contain more nicotine than conventional cigarettes.

It was difficult to determine how much of the nicotine in a conventional cigarette actually ends up being consumed by the smoker, he said.

“I’ve never done a study myself personally on nicotine being taken out of a cigarette,” he said. “There’s a lot of variables with it— however many puffs you smoke off the cigarette… the longer you let it sit in your hand, the less nicotine you’re going to get. You puff it all down at one time, you’re going to get more nicotine, so it’s really hard to say.”

Chattin said the ordinance would not likely require Bewley to have a new license.