By Dan Linehan
---- — ST. PAUL — The state Senate approved a ban Thursday on using e-cigarettes in indoor public places as part of a larger package of health and human services bills.
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, brought a familiar argument to the Senate floor: that the risks of e-cigarette vapor is unknown, and the public shouldn’t be asked to accept them.
“It’s not reasonable to ask that the … freedom to breathe benefits only be experienced by those in (state-owned) buildings,” she said.
Because the overall bill contained the ban, it was left to opponents such as Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, to attempt to edit it out. He sought to amend the bill to limit the public places ban to state-owned buildings.
He argued that e-cigarettes don’t present the same harms as cigarettes, including having less than 1/1300th of one particular chemical.
“It’s not the same as smoking a cigarette,” he said. “It’s not the same.”
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, was one of two Republicans to speak in favor of the indoor public places ban. Though other Republicans argued that a ban should wait until more is known, she said uncertainty should favor the ban.
“Seriously, members, we should tell kids that smoking is not good for you, I don’t care what form it is,” she said.
Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said e-cigarettes “renormalize” the act of smoking.
“It took us years to get the numbers (of smokers) to drop in middle schools and high schools,” she said.
Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, said business owners should, in the absence of provable harm, be able to decide for themselves whether to allow e-cigarettes in their establishments.
"There’s no conclusive evidence that this in any way brings harm," he said. "Freedom should be our default.”
The amendment was defeated 35-28 and all the Mankato-area senators voted 'no.'
The bill contained dozens of other provisions, as well, including a ban on smoking in foster homes and a ban on people younger than 18 using tanning beds. Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, offered an amendment to replace the tanning bed ban with a requirement for parental approval, though it was defeated 37-23.
The bans got the most attention, though most of the bill consisted of relatively minor tweaks.
For example, it allows anti-psychotic medications to be administered to patients who can’t consent to them, as long as they've been prescribed the drugs before.
The overall bill passed 48-17 and is likely now headed to a conference committee, where senators and representatives will seek a compromise. The e-cig ban for public buildings may be the most contentious topic, considering the House approved e-cigarette regulations earlier this week without the ban.
In the first few weeks of the session, Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, edited the House version of the bill to remove the indoor buildings ban to get it through her committee.
She personally supports the ban but said Wednesday she has no assurances she can get enough votes in the House. So if she let the ban be included in the final version, she risks the House voting the whole bill down.
Guidance from Democratic leaders would help clarify the vote. Majority Leader Erin Murphy said Thursday she hadn’t spoken with Liebling on the matter.
Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, who authored the standalone e-cig bill in the House, said her fellow representatives may have changed their positions since the session began.
“It’s gone from 0 to 60 very quickly,” she said, citing recent studies.
And she also would like the conference committee to consider how hard Sheran fought for the public buildings ban. It made it through five committees, and the public buildings ban had a challenge to survive in most or all of them.
Gov. Mark Dayton has concerns about the public places ban but has said he would sign such a bill if it comes to his desk.