The legislation would make Washington one of two states, including Michigan, to impose a ban in response to an outbreak of e-cigarette-related illnesses and a dramatic surge in vaping among youths. Laws at both the federal and state level raising the age limit to buy tobacco and vapor products from 18 to 21 for tobacco just went into effect this month.
The bill, introduced in both the state House and Senate with some bipartisan support, would also impose limits on nicotine levels in vapes, which tend to be higher than conventional cigarettes. The bill would also require manufacturers to submit detailed disclosures about the ingredients in their products to the Washington State Department of Health.
Research funded by the National Institutes of Health shows that flavored vapes are popular among both adults and teens; older users tend to favor mint or menthol, and younger vapers show a preference for mango or dessert-themed flavors. The governor’s bill would prohibit vape products that taste or smell of anything besides tobacco. It would extend to product packaging, too.
The ban would take effect immediately, and shortly after, retailers would have to get rid of prohibited items in their stock. They can destroy those items, send them out of state or back to their manufacturers.
Between 2016 and 2018, the number of Washington students who reported that they vape surged by 20%, according to the state’s Healthy Youth Survey. Relatively odorless and designed to be discreet, the most recent devices to hit the market can easily fly under the radar of unsuspecting parents or teachers. Health and substance-abuse professionals say they’ve seen more frequent and severe nicotine addictions among their students.
“We want to protect the health of the next generation,” said Molly Voris, a health-policy adviser for Inslee.
There has been vocal opposition to banning flavored products, including from vape-shop owners, who say the temporary ban has already drained money from their businesses, and former smokers. Both say the move will force people back to smoking cigarettes, which contain more dangerous chemicals, and increase black-market sales.
Two Republican lawmakers, Sen. Ann Rivers, of La Center, and Rep. Joe Schmick, of Colfax, said they oppose the flavor ban for the same reasons.
“We had 480,000 cigarette-related deaths last year,” said Rivers, a member of the Senate’s Health & Long Term Care Committee. “Seems like our priorities are a little askew at the moment.”
Last month, Schmick supported the ban, but recently said he changed his mind after speaking with constituents who told him their health improved after they stopped smoking and switched to vaping. He still supports a cap on nicotine levels for vape products.
Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, also introduced a bill this week that would protect vapor products from a ban, but amend current law to allow law enforcement to seize tobacco or vape products from people under the age of 21. (Current law only permits officers to confiscate products from minors.)
In 2017, about 326,000 Washingtonians used vapor products, according to the state health department. About 88,000, or 27% of them, were kids in eighth to 12th grade. There were 764,000 adult smokers that year.
Since April 2019, there have been 23 cases of lung illnesses linked to vapor products, five of them involving people younger than 20, according to the department. In 15 of those cases, the product contained nicotine; nine contained THC. The Centers for Disease Control has determined that vitamin E acetate, found in THC vape products, has been a factor in some of the cases. Officials haven’t ruled out any ingredients in nicotine products.
Flavored products constitute a significant share of e-cigarette sales, which are taxed. A permanent ban would mean the loss of more than $50 million in potential revenue for the state over the next four years, according to estimates from the House Finance Committee.
Voris, the health-policy adviser, said there may be more legislation proposed to try to fill that revenue loss.
A different bill restricting sales of flavors for THC vapes, by request from the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, is expected to appear soon, she said.