WSP changes tobacco ordinance

City council hazy on hookah decision

Before you light up, turn on or pass the hose next time, you might want to want to check the latest tobacco regulations in West St. Paul.

The city is working on updates to its tobacco ordinance that would deal with recent changes in the industry, most notably the rising popularity of electronic cigarettes. The city council approved a first reading of the updated ordinance in its Sept. 23 meeting.

The last time the city adapted its tobacco ordinance was 2007, when it took over licensing and compliance checks from Dakota County.

“We thought it was time to take out this ordinance and dust it off, because there’s been several changes in the tobacco industry,” Police Chief Bud Shaver explained when presenting the ordinance.

The move was inspired in part by a recommendation from the League of Minnesota Cities, which recently distributed a model ordinance to constituent members to demonstrate how many cities are behind the times when it comes to regulating tobacco shops.

New tech, old problem

Most notably, West St. Paul’s revised ordinance makes explicit provisions for e-cigarettes, which could potentially slip through cracks of the current phrasing when it comes to sale and use by minors. E-cigarettes are reusable devices that use a heating element to turn a liquid solution into vapor for smoking. Advocates say the devices are safer than traditional cigarettes and can serve as a stepping stone for smokers attempting to quit altogether, although the claims have not yet been substantiated scientifically.

Regulating authorities, on the other hand, counter that e-cigarettes are still used for nicotine consumption and therefore should be subject to the same regulations as their old-fashioned counterparts. (E-cigarettes can also be used with flavored, nicotine-free liquids, but nicotine-based solutions remain prevalent.)

Too harsh on hookahs
While the majority of the changes were met with universal approval, the council expressed concern about a provision that bans indoor smoking in any commercial property in the city, because it effectively bans hookah lounges.

Although there are currently no hookah lounges in West St. Paul, Council member Ed Iago said he believed banning a business type that could just as easily operate with regulations was overly restrictive.

“It sounds like the net’s a little too broad right now,” Iago said.

Mayor John Zanmiller said while he agreed with Iago it wasn’t necessary to ban hookah lounges outright, he believed that the council should direct city staff to come up with more nuanced regulation for hookah lounges rather than simply striking the restrictive language from the ordinance and moving on.

“If we just arbitrarily strip this out, I think we could fall under the law of unintended consequences,” Zanmiller said.

The council ultimately followed Zanmiller’s and Iago’s lead, voting unanimously to approve the first reading of the ordinance with the understanding that further revisions would be made by the second reading. The ordinance must pass three readings in total before gaining final approval.

The hookah conversation was slowed at times by a lack of familiarity with the practice, which has spread internationally from what was originally a Southeast Asian tradition. At one point, Council member Dick Vitelli paused the discussion to ask for a general definition of the practice.

“Does someone want to educate an ignorant old man?” he joked.

After providing an off-the-cuff explanation of hookah smoking, Zanmiller quipped that the council may need more education on alternative smoking practices if legal trends from other states carry to Minnesota.

“If you think this is tough, we better hope that the Legislature doesn’t get any crazy ideas about medical marijuana,” Zanmiller said. “If we can’t even get through a hookah, I can’t even imagine what rolling papers, bongs and prescriptions will do to us.”

Luke Reiter can be reached at or at 651-748-7815.

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