Vape teenager. Young pretty white girl smoking an electronic cigarette opposite modern brown background on the street in the winter.

As vaping has become more common among teenagers, illnesses and injuries have prompted calls for more restrictions.

As soon as next month, stores in St. Louis Park will no longer be able to sell vaping products.

The St. Louis Park City Council voted 6-1 in December for the ban, with a second vote scheduled Jan. 6, after this edition went to press.

About 125 vapor-related lung diseases have been reported in Minnesota, reported Brian Hoffman, city director of building and energy, as he laid out the case for the ban. Three associated deaths have been reported in the state.

More than a quarter of St. Louis Park High School juniors reported using vaping products in the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey. Statewide, 76% of juniors considered vaping to be relatively harmless compared to traditional tobacco products.

“That just shows how this has sort of crept into society,” Hoffman said. “It’s really unsafe for people of all ages.”

He noted that a business representative had said vaping opponents should work on a statewide ban rather than a local ban because consumers can cross a city boundary to another store.

“I thought, well, that is true,” Hoffman said. “Leadership, though, sometimes happens locally.”

He referenced local indoor smoking bans that eventually led to a statewide law.

Public comment

Numerous health organizations sent in letters in support of a ban on vaping sales in the community, including the American Heart Association, the Minnesota Medical Association, the Twin Cities Medical Society, HealthPartners, the Minnesota Cancer Alliance and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

“Many youth falsely believe e-cigarettes are safe and often don’t realize they contain nicotine, which can be harmful to the developing adolescent brain,” said Sarah Sanchez, a resident who works as the community impact director at the American Heart Association.

Paul Danicic, a city resident who works for the Park Nicollet Foundation, said, “What I’m hearing from cardiologists and pulmonary docs is that there’s a lot of things we don’t know about what vaping does to our lungs and how it’s different than smoking. And the bottom line is it looks bad, and we don’t know enough. And it’s sort of like the wild, wild west out there.”

He added, “I think it’s wise to take a pause and to not be the community that has these things so easily available.”

Four students representing the Knightlife Leadership Council at Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park spoke in support of the ban. The council promotes chemical-free lifestyles. The speakers said they found the addiction many young people have to vaping frustrating when considering public policy efforts regarding traditional cigarettes. They asked council members to consider banning menthol tobacco in the same way the city has banned tobacco with fruit and candy flavors.

Minneapolis resident Heather Gantzer, a physician who works at Park Nicollet Clinic and Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, told council members, “I have seen so many of my patients struggle in vain to try to free themselves from the nicotine addiction that began in their childhood and elementary and high school years.”

Vaping products that mask the harshness of tobacco can lead to a lifetime of nicotine addiction, Gantzer said. She also urged the council to ban mint and menthol flavors.

Meghan Shea, who represented a coalition of neighborhood retail stores in the community, expressed several concerns with the ban.

She noted that a Dec. 12 update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked lung-injury outbreaks to e-cigarettes containing THC, the chemical in marijuana that creates a high. The CDC reported that THC has been present in most of the samples the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested, and most patients reported a history of using THC-containing products.

“However, regular electronic cigarettes legally being sold in St. Louis Park retail stores do not contain THC,” Shea said. “This means the products being sold in stores are not causing the lung injuries currently being recorded.”

The CDC and FDA have not proposed a national ban but rather have recommended that people not use e-cigarettes containing THC, particularly from informal sources like friends, family, in-person sales or online sales, Shea added. Vaping can be used as a substitute for regular cigarettes and other smoke tobacco products, she said.

“Prohibiting the sale of electronic cigarettes is not the solution because legal electronic cigarettes are not the cause of this particular problem,” Shea said. “If illegal products have caused this health crisis, then making legal products illegal may not be the right solution. This ordinance would only force those consumers to patronize other stores outside of St. Louis Park to purchase their electronic cigarette products.”

Minneapolis resident Ruth Tripp, an analyst with Hennepin County Public Health, responded, “While many of the patients report having vaped illegal THC and investigators are focusing on those illegal products as a primary concern, health officials cannot guarantee the safety of any vaping products that are currently in the market. There are many substances in different products that are being investigated, and so there may be more than one cause.”

Tripp also advocated for banning menthol-flavored products, a move that Shea said retailers would want to weigh in on.

Council debate

Steve Hallfin, the only council member to vote against the ban Dec. 16, said his father died at the age of 62 from lung cancer caused by smoking cigarettes.

Of nicotine products, he said, “With all the fiber of my being, I abhor them. But that doesn’t change the fact that we have freedoms in this country.”

He said he agreed with health officials who spoke about the dangers of tobacco products but said they are still legal products.

“I don’t think the seven of us up here should be telling adults what they can or can’t put in their own systems, so it’s a personal freedom choice,” Hallfin said.

Thom Miller, also in his final council meeting, asserted that city government could respond more immediately than the federal government in responding to lung injuries and deaths that have apparently been related to vaping.

“We can move relatively quickly in this regard in order to do what we can to assist in the public health of our community,” Miller said. “This is a small part of the solution, but that’s how solutions like this are grown.”

The city ban can help build momentum for a state policy that could be more easily enforced and implemented, Councilmember Anne Mavity said.

Of the 21 establishments in St. Louis Park licensed to sell tobacco products, city staff found eight that sell e-cigarettes and vaping products. Mavity called that fact “an indication that even the market itself is moving away from this.”

Councilmember Rachel Harris said she had received about two dozen letters in support of a ban but none in opposition.

“Overwhelmingly, you have requested a ban on e-cigarettes,” Harris told the audience. “You’ve also mentioned that menthol and mint are a gateway flavor that entice young people to try tobacco products.”

In response to comments from Shea, Councilmember Margaret Rog pointed out that the CDC has suggested e-cigarette users consider refraining from all vaping products as the investigation continues.

“I’m really glad that our city is taking a stand, and I do hope that others will follow suit and eventually we’ll have our statewide ban,” Rog said.

Councilmember Tim Brausen opined, “My inclination is to err on the side of caution and pass a ban until it’s determined that this is healthy, if in fact that could possibly be determined. I’d rather see us err on the side of caution before thousands of additional youth are addicted to nicotine delivery systems.”

As a former smoker, Brausen said, “It’s just the worst possible addiction.”

Mayor Jake Spano, who quit smoking within the past year, said he still thinks about smoking every day. He said he tried vaping products while trying to quit but that they didn’t work for him. The ban is not the solution to the problem given black market products, Spano said, but he still supported the ban in hopes that Hennepin County and the state would also take up the issue.

Separately, council members agreed with Mavity’s proposal to raise the topic of banning mint and menthol flavors in tobacco at a future study session.

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