Seven years after banning cigarettes from public places, Minnesota has re-entered a familiar but murkier public health debate.
“We’re nervous about balancing between individual freedom and public health,” health commissioner Ed Ehlinger said. “E-cigarettes are pushing that gray area and they’re pushing it on purpose.”
There’s no bright line but there’s a lot of gray,” he said.
In 2007, the Legislature banned smoking in restaurants and other workplaces on the strength of incontrovertible evidence: the smoke emitted from a smoker’s lungs and, especially, the smoldering tip of a cigarette, causes cancer.
This effort to regulate electronic cigarettes in the same way, led by Mankato Sen. Kathy Sheran, is calling upon more tenuous evidence.
During a Monday state Senate hearing, Ehlinger cited a study that found the vapor emitted from 12 brands of e-cigarettes contains potentially toxic and carcinogenic substances. He conceded that the vapor’s chemicals are at lower levels than in cigarette smoke but are "in the air nonetheless.”
The study’s findings are even more ambiguous than that summary. It said that the levels of those chemicals were between nine and 450 times lower than in cigarette smoke. It concluded that using e-cigarettes as a harm reduction strategy among smokers to quit warrants further study.
Another study, published in the journal Inhalation Toxicology in 2012, concluded there is “no apparent risk to human health from e-cigarette emissions based on the compounds analyzed.”
To that evidence, Ehlinger asks if you would use an e-cigarette around a 3-month-old.
“Most people say they probably wouldn’t,” he said. “If that’s the case on an individual level we need to think about what we’re exposing other people to.”
By any reckoning, though, the jury is still out on whether e-cig vapor causes cancer.