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E-cigs issue sparks public debate: Amendment to require license for e-cigarettes sales, prohibit sales to minors

BEMIDJI — Townspeople filled City Hall Monday to speak on the issue of e-cigarettes facing the Bemidji City Council.

They were participating in a public forum on a draft ordinance amendment that would add e-cigarettes to the city code requiring licensing of tobacco sales and prohibiting their sale to minors.  Monday’s meeting saw the second of three readings of the ordinance draft before it becomes law. Although the point of the forum was to allow comment on the ordinance amendment specifically, much of the public’s actual testimony centered on the issue of e-cigarettes in general.  

The revised draft of the ordinance took out a paragraph which had sparked negative feedback from the council the last time the amendment was read at a meeting Oct. 21. The paragraph in question defined “smoking” to include “carrying an operational electronic delivery device…,” which some council members feared could be interpreted as banning the possession of e-cigarettes in the city completely. Councilor Reed Olson called the paragraph’s language “draconian.”

However, City Attorney Al Felix emphasized before Monday’s meeting the amendment was to regulate the sale of e-cigarettes, not their use. Beltrami County is currently discussing the regulation of e-cigarette use.

He said the controversial paragraph was put in as a “placeholder” in case the council ever wanted to regulate the in-store sampling of e-cigarettes sometime in the future if the county didn’t already. The county’s indoor  air law currently allows sampling in conventional tobacco shops, he said. The smoking definition paragraph was not intended to prohibit anything, Felix said.

“There’s nothing prohibited there,” he said.

Matt Bewley, owner of Bemidji e-cigarette store Northern Vapes, was the first person to speak during the public forum. He briefly commented on the smoking-definition paragraph, saying the definition would prohibit sampling in his store. Felix answered by saying the council was striking the definition from the amendment and was not attempting to regulate sampling at the present time.

“I think it’s fair to say that the council is waiting to see what will Beltrami County do with the issue of sampling,” Felix said.

 “Okay, perfect,” Bewley said in response.

The discussion that followed poured over the perceived advantages and dangers of e-cigarettes, including whether or not they are a stop-smoking aid.

One Bemidji resident asked rhetorically if, since e-cigarette vendors are required to have a license, whether those who sell stop-smoking aids should be required to have them as well.

“You can get gum, patches, every other stop-smoking aid at any convenience store,” she said.

 Lynn Maltais, a nursing professor at Bemidji State University, responded by saying e-cigarettes are not approved by the FDA as a stop-smoking aid.

“If children see their parents ‘vaping’ (using e-cigarettes)… they may see that as an acceptable behavior,” she said.  

At the end of the public hearing, Council member Reed Olson reminded those assembled that the ordinance amendment was simply regulating the sales of e-cigarettes, not commenting on their merits or hazards.

“We’re not making a statement on whether e-cigarettes (are) a cessation device, whether or not it’s healthy, how it compares to tobacco,” he said. “We’re not making any of those calls at all tonight, and probably we never will. That’s much more the purview of the county.”

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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