It’s time to tighten state’s smoking regulations

With a new St. Louis Park City Council, the vote to ban the sale of vaping products ended with the same result.

After two new members joined the council during its Jan. 6 meeting, the council voted to finalize the ban 6-1, the same margin as in December.

Incoming Councilmember Larry Kraft continued the opposition of his predecessor, Steve Hallfin.

Kraft began by saying, “I’m very concerned with the amount of vaping that goes on with teenagers, and I’m absolutely appalled about the way some of the products have been targeted and marketed.”

He said he generally supports actions to keep vaping products out of the hands of students.

“Personally, I’d be thrilled if e-cigarettes and cigarettes didn’t exist,” Kraft said.

However, he took issue with the ordinance before the council, which states that “in light of the immediate health threat” posed by vaping products, “St. Louis Park is not content to wait for FDA action to address for its residents what appears from the evidence to be a major health crisis that is going unattended.”

Kraft said recent updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stated that new laboratory data supports previous findings that vitamin E acetate caused an outbreak of lung injuries. The CDC describes vitamin E acetate as “an additive in some THC-containing e-cigarette, or vaping, products.” THC is the active ingredient in marijuana, which is not legal for recreational use in Minnesota.

The CDC also said cases of vaping product-associated lung injury have been declining after peaking in September 2019. Kraft said the recent updates indicate that there is no longer a major health crisis involving lung injury.

Kraft also pointed to research by Dr. Michael Siegel, a physician at the Boston University School of Public Health, that indicates that a recent vaping products ban in Massachusetts led to an increase in cigarette smoking.

Kraft said, “I think practically things like alcohol, tobacco, marijuana are better to be legal and well-regulated versus illegal with the risky black market.”

While Kraft said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been slow to regulate vaping products, he said the city’s ban is open-ended rather than scheduled to end after the FDA introduces vaping product regulations.

Since the city already bans the sale of tobacco products to individuals under 21 years of age, Kraft said he did not believe the vaping products ban would be effective regarding youth vaping, either.

The other new council member, Nadia Mohamed, voted in support of the ban.

“I do recognize the significance of the health risks that comes with the usage of vaping products and e-cigarettes,” Mohamed said.

They are especially detrimental to youth, she said.

“I recognize that this is a real problem and needs real solutions,” Mohamed added.

The community needs to actively educate people about the risks, she said.

“If this is not being followed with education, and really talking about the health risks, then it’s just essentially like just words on a piece of paper,” she said.

In a shift, Councilmember Rachel Harris proposed holding off on finalizing the ban for 30 days to work through details with small business owners.

Mustafa Garwhal, an owner of the proposed West End Tobacco shop at 7120 Cedar Lake Road, objected that he and his business partner had not known about the proposal, although city staff said they had been sent a notification to an address on file. Garwhal, who noted he and his business partner had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying and remodeling the building, asked if the ordinance could be changed to allow the products for stores that exclusively sold tobacco products.

Brian Hoffman, city director of building and energy, indicated that some other Minnesota cities have limited vaping products to adult-only tobacco stores, but he noted that St. Louis Park does not have a tobacco-only store licensing category.

In relation to other cities in the state, Hoffman said, “To our knowledge, this would be the first ordinance, in St. Louis Park, that would actually totally prevent the sale of electronic nicotine delivery systems.”

Harris later said, “I am empathetic to the business owner who is in the process of seeking a license, and we’re introducing legislation that curbs their ability to sell products.”

Her motion to delay the ban’s implementation failed after no other council members supported it. Harris ultimately voted in support of the ban, which is set to go into effect at the beginning of February.

Although Mavity voted with the majority for the ban, she said she would be open to reconsidering it if the FDA provides a strong regulatory framework that would ensure the safety of vaping products.

During the discussion, Cap O’Rourke, president of the Midwest Vapor Coalition, stressed that deaths had been linked to products bought on the black market that contained THC.

O’Rourke argued that the council’s action “will essentially leave one product on the market, and that is cigarettes.”

He added, “It’s the one product that everybody here knows is going to kill people if used properly.”

Another speaker said the ban would not prevent access to vaping products because people could go to nearby cities and may buy more dangerous products online.

However, Kristen Ackert, policy and research manager at the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota, reminded council members of the show of support for the ban from medical personnel last month.

“You’ll be really taking a huge step in addressing this youth vaping epidemic that we are facing,” Ackert said. “Thank you for your leadership. We need it now.”

Mayor Jake Spano said, “I think our hope here is that by beginning a process of pressing the pause button on the growth of this, at least in our community, it starts a conversation that other communities can then start to have about what is the role of this in their community.”

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