Minnesota legislators try to clear confusion over e-cigarettes

Down the street from the State Capitol, in St. Paul s Midway neighborhood, Vape Pro s owner Troy Decorsey puffed banana bread flavored nicotine from his e cigarette device, which he said helped him quit smoking after 25 years.

«You prove that secondhand vapor is harmful, and I will shut my store down,» he said. «I will leave right now.»

In a crowded hearing room at the Capitol, some legislators said Wednesday that consumers can t wait decades for proof, the way they did with tobacco.

«This is the Wild West,» Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL Eagan, told a panel of lawmakers looking at restricting e cigarettes. «We just don t know and the consumer doesn t know. The consumer is being told they re harmless, but the fact is the consumer doesn t know because we haven t regulated it.»

Minnesota s debate is part of a national battle over e cigarettes, with some of the nation s largest cities adding «No Vaping» to signs that already say «No Smoking.» In Minnesota, where 80 percent of the state s 200 e cigarette retailers have popped up in the past year, the Legislature is eyeing the idea of regulating them like regular tobacco, including banning their use indoors and in public places. But the measure is being met with resistance from the industry, which says the products are far from being comparable to cigarettes.

E cigarettes can contain nicotine laced with various flavors, or can be nicotine free. There is no tobacco, so the devices emit a vapor rather than tobacco smoke. Experts are divided over whether the vapors themselves contain chemicals that are dangerous to inhale.

«Here s the deal,» Decorsey said. «As soon as they see smoke, they assume the worst. Because they don t smoke, they assume the worst. The problem is that they re not knowledgeable about it. Nobody is.»

Opponents call electronic cigarettes the next public health menace, geared toward luring kids into nicotine addiction with candy sweet flavors like «cola,» «milk chocolate» and «bubble gum.»

Backers say they re a safer alternative to smoking, and in many cases the only tool that has helped lifelong smokers kick the habit, although for many, nicotine is a component of their vaping.

As Minnesota legislators take their first hard look at the devices that have created a burgeoning industry in the state, both sides have reached a consensus No one knows just how harmful or harmless they really are.

Bans, proposed protections

The Minneapolis City Council is considering whether to support a state ban. Duluth and Mankato have already restricted e cigarette use in public places, St. Paul is looking at prohibiting sales to minors and Hennepin County has included e cigarettes in its ban on smoking on county property.

Elsewhere, Chicago and New York City have banned e cigarettes in public places and Los Angeles is a step away from a similar ban.

New Jersey brought e cigarettes under its smoking ban in 2010. Utah is looking at a bill that would ban the sale of e cigarettes to minors, and a pro vaping website counts restrictions or tax hikes on the products pending in California, Maryland, Washington state, Hawaii and the cities of San Francisco and Philadelphia.

On the flip side, Wisconsin and Tennessee are considering measures that would protect e cigarettes from smoking bans.

More than 100 people, ranging from tobacco lobbyists to health officials and e cigarette proprietors, packed Wednesday s House Health and Human Services Policy Committee hearing. Chairwoman Tina Liebling, DFL Rochester, twice admonished the crowd that no vaping was allowed in the room, insisting that she could smell it. No one was spotted using a vaping device.

Pat McKone, of the American Lung Association of Minnesota, told Liebling that she might be smelling the devices most popular flavor, which she had brought along lemon blueberry cotton candy. McKone compared the tactics of the e cigarette makers to Big Tobacco s marketing to children.

Cvs becomes first big u.s. drugstore chain to drop tobacco

(Reuters) CVS Caremark Corp will stop selling tobacco products at its 7,600 stores by October 1, the company said on Wednesday, making it the first national drugstore chain in the United States to take cigarettes off the shelves.

Public health experts hailed the precedent setting decision by the No. 2 U.S. drugstore as a step that could pressure other retailers to follow suit. With pharmacies taking on a larger role in the U.S. healthcare system with walk in clinics and services such as managing health plans, many experts say they should no longer offer unhealthy products like tobacco.

President Barack Obama, a former smoker, praised CVS, saying in a statement the move will help wider efforts to «reduce tobacco related deaths, cancer, and heart disease, as well as bring down healthcare costs.»

CVS expects the decision to hurt profits initially, along with a $2 billion hit to annual sales. But the company, whose Caremark unit is a pharmacy benefits manager for corporations and the U.S. government’s Medicare program, believes the move will boost its appeal as a healthcare provider.

CVS hopes to replace some sales through signing up customers to smoking cessation programs, which will be a selling point with potential corporate contracts.

Analysts said CVS could eventually recoup lost sales through increased use of its healthcare services. But investors focused on the short term pain. CVS shares fell 1 percent. Larger rival Walgreen Co, which will keep selling cigarettes, rose 3.9 percent, while No. 3 Rite Aid Corp which also will still offer cigarettes rose 2 percent.

Shares of cigarette makers Lorillard Inc, Altria Group and Reynolds American all slipped.

Pharmacists have long been a source of community health information, and drugstore chains have embraced that tradition by adding walk in clinics. CVS is the largest U.S. pharmacy healthcare provider, with more than 800 MinuteClinic locations.

«I think CVS recognized that it was just paradoxical to be both a seller of deadly products and a healthcare provider,» U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden told Reuters.

CVS Caremark Chief Medical Officer Dr. Troyen Brennan said in a piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association that increased health coverage under the U.S. Affordable Care Act «comes with a price» of promoting public health.

Experts noted that healthcare organizations and advocacy groups such as Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights have been urging pharmacies for years to get out of the tobacco business.

Cornell University communication professor Jeff Niederdeppe cited «an evolving social climate that has become less and less supportive of the marketing, sale, and use of tobacco products in the U.S.»

Some U.S. cities, including Boston and San Francisco, already ban the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies, and nonsmoking advocates hope other chains will follow CVS.

«This is a trend we’re going to see many, many retailers and food companies jump on,» said Alexandra von Plato, president and global chief creative officer of Publicis Healthcare Communications Group.

Only 18 percent of U.S. adults smoke, down sharply from 43 percent in 1965. But the habit still kills 480,000 Americans each year, remaining the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

SHORT TERM HIT

CVS said the decision to drop tobacco sales will cost the company 6 cents to 9 cents in profit per share this year. Analysts expect 2014 revenue of $132.9 billion and earnings of $4.47 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Overall U.S. cigarette sales fell 31.3 percent from 2003 to 2013, according to Euromonitor International. And CVS faced more competition in selling to that shrinking market, as discount retailers Family Dollar Stores Inc and Dollar General Corp chains charge much less and have far more locations.

«We believe the move will be viewed as a positive long term decision by CVS, despite the near term profit drag, as it paves the way for increased credibility with both healthcare consumers and payers,» ISI Group analyst Ross Muken wrote in a note to investors.

CVS has been bolstering its position in the healthcare market in recent months and in December, it said it expected pharmacy benefit manager revenue to rise between 7.25 percent and 8.5 percent in 2014, more than double the rate of retail business growth.

Tobacco companies shrugged off the announcement even as shares dipped on concerns about potential disruption to sales.

«It’s up to retailers to decide if they’re going to sell tobacco products,» said Brian May, spokesman for Altria Group, maker of Marlboro and other popular brands.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Nik Modi said he expected little impact on tobacco companies. He noted that they rely on convenience stores for more than 75 percent of sales.

But Dr. Richard Wender of the American Cancer Society said CVS’s move would have an effect.

«Every time we make it more difficult to purchase a pack of cigarettes, someone quits.»

(Reporting by Phil Wahba in New York and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago Editing by Jilian Mincer, Lisa Shumaker and David Gregorio)