While Minnesota may be known as The Land of 10,000 Lakes, to those in business it is also known as the land of 10,000 regulations and the land of 10,000 taxes. It was precisely such a proposed set of regulations and an already passed tax at the state level that spurred the creation of one of the largest state vapor trade associations in the country.
In 2010, Minnesota amended their definition of tobacco products (for tax purposes) to include anything derived from tobacco, including liquid containing nicotine. In 2013 they increased the rate to 95% wholesale and also proposed limitations on public usage of vapor products. At the time, I was a legislative staffer in the Minnesota Senate, working on the tax committee and it was surprising to me that I had not heard about any opposition from the many vapor businesses in the Twin Cities. So, when I left the senate to start my own lobbying firm one the first meetings I had was with some of the local vape shop owners in Minneapolis, to ask them how the taxes and the proposed public ban would alter their business. Though I do not smoke cigarettes or vape I was interested in this new technology that was helping so many to kick the habit. Over the course of many meetings, the state’s seven largest vapor businesses decided to begin fighting back and formed the Independent Vapor Retailers of Minnesota (IVRM) in early 2014.
We Mean Business!
Retailers and manufacturers alike were FED UP with the anti-vaping groups’ uneducated “attacks” and with continuous state, county and city proposals calling for vaping legislation and unfair regulation. The newly formed IVRM’s purpose would be to provide a unified, common voice for Minnesota’s vapor businesses. These seven founding businesses – and eventually many more – were ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their competitors and advocate for their livelihoods, their employees, the vaping community at large – and yes, for the very existence of their businesses and their industry. Rugged winters make Midwesterners pretty tenacious so in very short order, this small but determined group of entrepreneurs put Minnesota at the forefront of vaping advocacy and became one of the first states in the U.S. to organize a formal, state-wide vaping-related business/retailers association.
Declarations and commitments are great but none of that will actually get the job done. Knowing that only strategic actions and methodical implementation would produce results, the newly formed association got busy. They chose a Board of Directors, elected Officers, assigned roles, defined responsibilities, and filed paperwork making the group legal in the eyes of MN and the IRS. They also formed sub committees, charged with achieving specific goals such as Membership Recruitment, Events, Marketing, and so on. Meanwhile, word spread rapidly and additional businesses were eager to join the fight. The IVRM (which later joined with SFATA as the SFATA-MN Chapter) began to quickly grow in numbers, participation and scope.
Obstacles, Challenges and Growing Pains
The word “Organization” noun, refers to “a group whose members work together for a shared purpose in a continuing way”. However, the successful growth of an organization eventually demands more and more resources and at some point it’s simply not feasible for volunteers to be able to handle everything, while also giving adequate attention to their businesses. IVRM/SFATA-MN reached this point rather quickly and concluded that contracting with a bookkeeper, project manager and lobbyist were all necessary if they were to continue on the growth trajectory they had established on day one.
Growing Membership Numbers
There are four strategic and practical reasons membership numbers are important:
1. Without new members your core group of volunteers will eventually burn out.
2. Numbers matter on the state/legislative level, when meeting with your representatives.
3. Membership representation should be as geographically broad as possible since elected officials typically care only about businesses/residents from their area.
4. Advocacy costs money.
In IVRM/SFATA-MN’s case, the organization successfully grew from just seven original member-businesses to nearly 90 member-businesses within 24 months. If we can do that in Minnesota – with semi frozen brains – you can do it too.
Successful advocacy costs both time and Money, but there are plenty of advocacy groups that are not effectively utilizing these resources. To assure success, IVRM founders knew they would have to focus on these core essentials.
Financial resources in Minnesota come from the monthly dues that all members pay. Determining membership/pledge levels and dues amounts will be up to your Board, based on the organization’s goals and what you believe your market place can contribute.
The second key component is time. IVRM members do not simply write a check and walk away; they engage in the process of advocacy directly. This means occasionally taking time out of the day to meet with state legislators and city/county leaders. These meetings are significant in their effectiveness and play an important role in how we educate our lawmakers. Minnesota’s advocates also host open houses, BBQ’s, etc. and use these as an opportunity to get to know their local/state elected officials (EO’s) by inviting them to attend. The same idea can be accomplished through a simple, direct invitation to stop by your shop for a visit. Your EO’s hold your fate in their hands. Get to know them before you need their vote!
The Politics of Vaping
“Lobbying” – verb – is simply “the act of trying to influence the actions or decisions of public officials”. Is it a must for your organization to engage a professional lobbyist? No. While doing so can definitely be helpful and improve your results, it is by no means mandatory and is certainly not a reason to delay an organized launch into pro-vape advocacy! What’s important is that your state’s business owners are involved (on some level) in lobbying efforts.
Ideally, the combination of both a professional lobbyist and the participation of business owners is a good formula for successful outcomes. The lobbyist has: access to law makers; the ability to secure meetings; important contacts; the ability to hone and drive the message based on experience; etc. These are all important tools in the process. Meanwhile, during actual meetings, the presence and participation of real live business owners who will be affected by proposed legislation, delivering the message from the heart, can have a very powerful impact.
Recognizing the value of this strategy, IVRM decided early on that in order to be most effective, they would need a state lobbyist who would be instrumental in keeping them up to date about what was going on at the capitol and in building valuable relationships with lawmakers. To date, this strategy has produced many successful pro-vape “wins”, including a defeated state public use ban proposal, a defeated .30 cents/ml state tax increase on eliquids, and multiple city/county level ordinances aimed at banning sampling.
Chart Your Own Course
If all this occurs as a lot “bigger” – and possibly more expensive – than what you had imagined, hopefully you’ll get past that and not be too discouraged. Our “Minnesota model” is just that; a model; an example of what can be accomplished in the name of fighting for what’s right. No matter the size or scope of your organization, advocacy is a worthwhile effort. What’s important is that you just start somewhere. Growth will happen if and when you want it to. Good Luck to you! SVBS
With more than 15 years working in the political arena, Cap O’Rourke has spent his entire career working as a legislative strategist, policy advocate and grassroots campaigner. Cap is a board member and current President for the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA). Cap’s Minneapolis based lobbying firm, O’Rourke Strategic Consulting, is the IVRM’s contracted lobbyist. Cap can be reached at [email protected] / 612-483-1863.