Electronic cigarettes should be treated like tobacco when it comes to minors, Minot's STAMP Coalition told a city committee Wednesday.
The Minot City Council's Public Works and Safety Committee voted at the coalition's urging to recommend the council make it illegal to sell or provide e-cigarettes to minors and for minors to possess the devices.
E-cigarettes are designed like a cigarette but are battery powered with a vaporizer and mouthpiece to deliver nicotine.
A sign on North Broadway advertises e-cigarettes, which are available in Minot but merchants are restricting sales to minors. A proposed city ordinance would ban sales to minors.
They don't fall under the definition of tobacco so there is no legal requirement for stores to restrict sales to minors. Many stores are checking identification and restricting on their own, but there is no penalty if a store fails to do so.
Some legislators are considering changing state law to bring e-cigarettes under the same rules as conventional cigarettes.
"We are absolutely going to be working toward that and hoping for that during the next session," said Erin Oban-Hill, executive director for Tobacco Free North Dakota, in Bismarck. In the meantime, she said, "A number of communities didn't want to wait."
Fargo and Bismarck have passed ordinances banning sales and possession by minors. Mandan and Williston are doing the same.
Minot's current tobacco ordinance provides for a fine of $50 for a first offense in distributing tobacco to a minor with increasing fines up to $300 for a third offense in a year. There is a $75 fine to minors caught using or selling the product, which is reduced to $25 with the completion of a tobacco education program. Fines are $75 for a second offense and $100 for a third offense.
Minot's e-cigarettes ordinance would incorporate those same penalties.
Managers of a couple of local shops, contacted by phone, stated they have no objection to restricting sales to minors, which they already do. E-cigarettes have been sold by smoke shops, convenience stores and a mall outlet in Minot. At least a couple of shops sell only e-cigarettes and not conventional, according to the STAMP Coalition.
The coalition also asked that the new ordinance require sellers to keep e-cigarettes behind the counter, which they already are required to do with traditional cigarettes.
The North Dakota Youth Tobacco Survey in 2013 showed 13.4 percent of high school students reported ever trying e-cigarettes. That is up from 4.5 percent in the 2011 survey, according to the North Dakota Health Department. The number of high school youth reporting ever trying traditional cigarettes was 38.1 percent in 2013. The use of traditional cigarettes among high schoolers has been stable the past several years at around 20 percent.
The findings from the National Youth Tobacco Survey show that the percentage of high school students who reported ever using an e-cigarette rose from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. In the same one-year time period, high school students using e-cigarettes within the past 30 days rose from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent. In North Dakota, use in the past 30 days rose from 1.6 percent in 2011 to 6 percent two years later in 2013.
The national study also found that 80 percent of high school students who used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days also smoked conventional cigarettes in the same period.
Because 90 percent of smokers take up the smoking habit in their teens, the growing numbers of e-cigarette users concerns health officials.
Holly Brekhus, community outreach coordinator at First District Health Unit, said the marketing of e-cigarettes is much like the marketing of cigarettes to minors before restrictions were put in place years ago.
"Currently, there's no regulation so they can advertise however they want," she said in an interview Monday. "The big tobacco companies have now bought smaller electronic cigarette companies. The tobacco giants are now marketing these products. It's a big concern."
Other concerns of health officials include the potential negative impact of nicotine on adolescent brain development as well as the risk for nicotine addiction and the initiation of use of conventional cigarettes or other tobacco products.
Some of the problems that the North Dakota Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy sees with e-cigarettes include the glamorization of smoking, marketing of fruit and candy flavors that appeal to youth and the lack of Food and Drug Administration testing of e-cigarettes for safety.
Oban-Hill said the State Health Department and North Dakota Center for Tobacco Prevention are working to combat the appeal of e-cigarettes to minors with education, and Tobacco Free North Dakota is doing what it can as a nonprofit.
What is positive is that the public is on the side of keeping both traditional and electronic cigarettes out of the hands of kids, she said.
"That's something the public is very supportive of," she said. "Nobody wants kids starting."