Gov. Jay Inslee directed state officials to impose an emergency ban on flavored vaping products, one of several measures he announced Friday in response to the mysterious, sometimes fatal lung illness linked to e-cigarettes that has rippled across the nation.
In an executive order, Inslee directed the state Board of Health to use its emergency authority to ban all flavored vaping products, including those containing THC.
If adopted during the health board’s Oct. 9 meeting, the ban would go in effect the next day, last 120 days and could be renewed.
With that move, Washington would join at least two other states — Michigan and New York — in banning flavored vape products. Massachusetts this week went further, enacting a four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products.
In justifying his executive order, Inslee noted the government’s responsibility for public health and flavored vaping products’ particular appeal to children.
“These kids get hooked,” Inslee said at a Friday morning appearance in Seattle. The governor and other state and King County officials took turns at the microphone lambasting an unregulated industry that they said draws young customers with flavors such as bubblegum and cinnamon.
“Look, when you addict a 12-year-old kid to nicotine, you’re just wrong,” Inslee said later.
The executive order sets up what could be a contentious debate at the Washington Legislature when lawmakers return in January. Several legislators among the Democratic majority have long sought more restrictions on vaping.
On the other side are small business owners and people using vaping devices. Washington has roughly 4,000 e-cigarette retailers and 500 licensed cannabis businesses, according to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Republicans, too, have expressed concern — but also caution as the exact source of the illnesses remains unknown and could be from unauthorized products.
“There is a sense of urgency to identify the ingredient, or ingredients, causing these problems,” said Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, in a statement.
“However, the governor’s ban does nothing for the products that can be purchased on the street,” added Schmick, the ranking Republican on the House Health Care and Wellness Committee. “This won’t affect the black-market producers.”
Advocates of vaping have fiercely defended the practice — and some even managed Friday to confront Inslee at his news conference.
Shaun D’Sylva, who owns vape shops in Washington, Oregon and Alaska, aggressively challenged Inslee’s claims about the adverse health impacts of vaping and argued that state action would lead to the shuttering of stores selling vaping products.
Inslee shot back: “We are acting for the public health of Washington residents.”
Margo Ross, who has owned Cloud 509 Moses Lake for two years, made the trip to Seattle for the announcement.
“We wanted to look the governor in the eyes while he shuts us down,” she said.
Around the nation, vaping-related illness has sickened about 800 people and killed at least 13.
No deaths have been reported in Washington. King and Spokane counties have reported two cases each of the illness, according to the state Department of Health. Mason, Pierce and Snohomish counties each have one confirmed case.
In his executive order, Inslee also directed the state Department of Health and the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board to ban the sale of any specific vaping products, if and when they are identified as the cause of the lung injuries. He also called on those agencies to develop warning signs to post in e-cigarette stores; require manufacturers of vaping products to disclose ingredients involved in the making and processing of their products; and to develop proposals for the upcoming legislative session to better regulate vaping, including a permanent ban on flavors.
“Everyone deserves to know what’s in these vaping liquids,” Inslee said.
As health officials nationally struggle to pinpoint the exact cause of the illnesses, some initial data has shown that most cases involved people who have used vaping products with THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In other cases, people have reported using both nicotine and THC products, and some have said they only used nicotine.
Given the lack of regulation of vaping and the uncertainty, Inslee said, “If I had a loved one, I would tell them right now you are just playing dice with your lungs if you are using these products.”
Inslee noted that vaping has helped people quit smoking. But he also said he wished he could have come down harder on what has been “wrongfully seen as some safer alternative” to smoking. He settled on Friday’s action, he said, because state law left some ambiguity about how far an executive order can go.
“I wanted to do more by this executive order,” Inslee said. Friday’s announcement, he added, should be considered the start of an ongoing process. “This is a floor, not a ceiling.”
Moving action to the Legislature allows for greater public discussion, too, he said.
In a statement, Washington CannaBusiness Association’s executive director said her organization supports the “urgency” with which Inslee and public health officials are “acting to identify any and all risks to consumer safety resulting from vaping-related illness.”
E-cigarettes — like those produced by the company Juul — heat a liquid that creates an aerosol often containing nicotine, according to the CDC. Vaping devices can also be used to inhale THC or other cannabis products.
The devices have long been hailed as a healthier alternative for tobacco smokers trying to quit, since the products contain fewer toxic chemicals than conventional cigarettes.
Authorized flavored cartridges are sold for the devices. But people can buy unauthorized products off the street — or make their own.
Confronted with what is perhaps an existential threat to their businesses and lifestyle, vaping advocates have expressed alarm at the growing regulatory response to the deaths and illnesses.
“Continuing down the road of banning flavors will only cause millions of adult smokers and former smokers to go back to smoking or rely on what will be a new and larger black market,” said Tony Abboud, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Vapor Technology Association. “Banning flavors for vapor products, while leaving all flavored combustible products on shelves, can only entice all users to smoke more.”
In Seattle, some local businesses have started pulling flavored products.
John Ueding, general manager of The Reef Cannabis on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, stopped selling flavored vapes three months ago.
“They’ve been taken off the shelves already,” Ueding said. “We’re just being proactive, as far as consumer health. If we catch wind of anything being dirty, if there’s some concern, we will send it out to be tested.”
Ian Eisenberg, owner of Uncle Ike’s, said Inslee’s ban needs to be more precise, since there is no clear definition of what a “flavor” is.
“It’s meaningless until it’s a defined term,” he said. “We don’t know what the ban means, because what is a flavor?”
Some flavors come from the actual flower of cannabis, or terpenes, which are compounds found in fruits and plants that give cannabis its aroma, flavor and effects.
“The governor’s ban will be a good idea if, after rule-making, it is a ban on artificial flavorings,” he said.