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Vaping debated, Beltrami County Board votes 3-2 to revise tobacco ordinances

Heidi Prickett, Bemidji testifies in front the Beltrami County Board on Tuesday evening informing the board how e-cigarettes helped her kick smoking and ask them to allow the citizens to be able to make their own choice. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Proponents and opponents of vaping from Bemidji, Big Lake, Bagley and Mankato were among the crowd that filled the commissioners room at the county administration building Tuesday night in Bemidji. In a 3-to-2 vote, the second reading of proposed revisions to the county’s tobacco ordinances passed.

Commissioners Jim Lucachick and Tim Sumner voted against the ordinances as presented. Lucachick suggested allowing non-nicotine sampling to remove the fear of hookah lounges in the county.

"I’m looking for a compromise," Lucachick said.

"At this point Jim, I’m not ready to compromise on that," said board chairman Richard Anderson.

Concerns about the lack of science behind what is or is not contained in vaping vapors, the appeal of flavored liquids, the infringement on rights of citizens and the hookah lounge "loophole" were raised.

Sumner said he couldn’t support the revisions because he hasn’t seen enough scientific evidence that vaping is bad or harmful.

"I don’t see how it can be appealing to minors," Sumner said. "The vaporizer that I have is not appealing at all."

Sumner made the switch from smoker to vaper and said he believes it is a safer alternative to smoking a cigarette. He said attention should be turned toward the prescription drug epidemic in the county instead of a vaping shop that sells vaping devices and nicotine.

"It’ll cripple my business," said Northern Vapes owner Matt Bewley following the commissioners decision.

Eighteen people stood before Beltrami County commissioners to state their opinions on what the changes would mean to the community and to their lifestyles. Eleven of those 18 people opposed the restrictions.

Ordinances in question are 29 and 38A. Ordinance 29 pertains to the tobacco licensing and sales regulations. Ordinance 38A is where the controversy lies.

Section 4 of Ordinance 38A outlines permitted smoking in the county. Subdivision 4 has been removed altogether which prevents sampling of tobacco products in a shop. Nicotine liquid used in vaping devices is considered a tobacco product.

The subdivision states: "For the purpose of this subdivision, a tobacco products shop is a retail establishment with an entrance door opening directly to the outside that derives more than 90 percent of its gross revenue from the sale of loose tobacco…"

As the ordinance revision was written, it would also be illegal to carry a vaping device. Section 2 (h) includes: "Smoking" also includes carrying an operational electronic delivery device or a lighted cigar… which would make having an e-cigarette or device in a person’s possession illegal.

"Its regulation would be eroding freedom," said Dan Rukuski of Bemidji.

Commissioner Jack Frost said it is the county’s place to protect the public’s health. He compared the unknown effects of vaping liquid vapors to asbestos and mesothelioma. Frost pointed out one of the ingredients in vaping liquid is polypropylene, a thermoplastic which was later corrected to propylene glycol, a sweet hygroscopic viscous liquid that is used in automotive liquids.

"It is so new [that] my concern and my true concern … for people who want to find a good and reasonable substitute and a cost effective one is that it’s not going to be a bad choice not only for you but for the people around you as well," Frost said.

When Bewley addressed the board during the public hearing he said, "My main concern is for my business right now. If I can’t sample in my store, how can people make a decision on what they’re going to use?"

Heidi Prickett of Bemidji said she heard of Northern Vapes by word of mouth. She converted from smoking to vaping four months ago.

"It still should be my choice," Prickett said.

Dr. Ralph Morris of Bemidji presented both sides of the issue to the board stating e-cigarettes could be safer than conventional cigarettes, they may decrease the number of cigarettes used per day and electronic vaping devices could be used to wean a smoker off nicotine. However, Morris also pointed out the use of e-cigarettes alone could lead to nicotine addiction, increase chemical dependency of nicotine and use of electronic devices undermines the "de-normalization" of cigarette smoking.

"Unfortunately there is no good science to support either the potential benefits or harm of e-cigarettes," Morris said.

County attorney Tim Faver will redraft the ordinance language to clarify the section pertaining to the legality of carrying an electronic vaping device before the final reading on Dec. 3. The Bemidji city council amended its ordinance to include e-cigarettes in its tobacco sales law Monday night.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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