OLYMPIA — New product-disclosure requirements for e-cigarettes. Banning chemicals used in vaping flavors. More oversight by state regulators — and possibly even lawsuits.
Washington state officials and lawmakers are debating a range of responses to the mysterious vaping-related lung illness that has sickened hundreds across the country and is now sickening Washingtonians.
Six cases have been confirmed in Washington, with a Snohomish County resident added to the list Monday. Two patients each have been reported in King and Spokane counties, and another in Mason County.
No link has been shown between a particular e-cigarette ingredient and the illnesses; all that is known is that the patients used vaping devices.
Devices like electronic cigarettes heat up a liquid to generate an aerosol that often has nicotine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Users inhale that aerosol, which doesn’t have as many toxic chemicals as old-fashioned cigarettes.
But e-cigarettes can also be used to vape THC or other cannabis products. Sometimes authorized flavor cartridges are purchased. In other cases, people will buy unauthorized products off the street.
“It’s not like a foodborne disease outbreak where you can necessarily trace it back to the source,” said Jeffrey Duchin of Public Health – Seattle & King County.
That has left lawmakers, public-health officials and the office of Gov. Jay Inslee puzzling over how to best address the crisis. The governor could issue a directive as early as this week.
The Legislature this year raised the smoking and vaping age to 21. But Democratic lawmakers have for years also pushed for greater regulations of e-cigarettes, including a ban on flavor cartridges. Several Democratic legislators say the flavorings have fueled the rise of e-cigarettes by enticing young adults to vape.
In response, at least two other states — New York and Michigan — have used emergency rules or executive authority to ban flavored vape products in recent weeks.
In a letter last week, Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, and Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, asked the Department of Health (DOH) and state Liquor and Cannabis Control Board to ban flavorings containing two chemicals, vitamin E acetate and diacetyl, which some investigators are looking at as they search for a link between vaping and lung illness.
They cited a 2016 law in contending that the state has the authority to take such action.
“At least until proven otherwise, vapor products containing these two chemicals should be removed from the market in our State,” they wrote.
Pollet in 2015 sponsored a bill requested by Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson to regulate e-cigarettes. That bill, which among other things banned vape flavors, passed the Democratic House, but stalled in the then-GOP controlled Senate.
A compromise version of the legislation ultimately passed — but without the flavor ban.
“I’ve been worried about the e-cigarette explosion for years,” said Pollet.
Inslee’s office is considering a range of options, according to Sheri Sawyer, a senior policy adviser for the governor.
But Inslee’s office isn’t confident that DOH has the authority to ban flavored vapor products, she said.
While DOH has authority to take such actions in certain circumstances, “It’s really unclear whether this would meet that threshold,” said Sawyer. The governor, however, could still take that action if he chooses, she said.
Among other options, Inslee could also ask DOH and the Liquor and Cannabis Control Board to draft proposals for the upcoming legislative session — which starts in January — on how respond to the crisis.
The governor could also direct those two agencies to require that warning signs be displayed in stores selling vaping products, said Sawyer.
Meanwhile, Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, said she is drafting a bill to require more disclosure by companies around the exact ingredients that are in e-cigarette products.
The e-cigarette market “is completely unregulated and needs to have much more oversight,” said Keiser, who chairs the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which has some jurisdiction over vaping.
Ferguson, who in addition to seeking the flavor ban also worked on the yearslong effort to raise the tobacco age, said on Monday that e-cigarettes are a regular topic among his peers.
The attorney general said he wouldn’t be able to discuss information regarding any potential or actual investigation. But Ferguson said he’s been in touch with attorneys general in Massachusetts and North Carolina “regarding some actions they’ve taken.”
Both of those states have filed lawsuits against e-cigarette companies for targeting minors.
But Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the ranking Republican on the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, cautioned lawmakers and officials about acting too quickly without knowing more.
“I don’t want to see anyone harmed in any way,” said King. “But to be fair, we need to know what’s causing it, and why, and not just react randomly.”
Around the nation, 530 cases of severe lung illness have been linked to the use of e-cigarettes, killing at least seven people, according to the CDC.
For people continuing to use e-cigarettes, DOH recommends they watch out for symptoms, such as shortness of breath, coughing and chest pains — and quickly seek medical attention if concerns arise.
The agency advises people never purchase unauthorized vape products with THC or cannabinoids from street dealers.
As talk of new federal and state regulations grows louder, Julie Anderson, manager of eCig n’ Vape, says she started moving “massive amounts” of flavored vape juices to the other side of the Burien store, and cut prices in half.
“I have a 50% off sign on them now,” Anderson said Monday. “They’ll be going up to 60 or 70% off this week.”
Anderson does not vape, but her daughter does. Seventy percent of her customers buy flavored vape juices, she said.
“If there’s a flavor ban,” Anderson said, “you can kiss your business goodbye. But I’m 58. I’ve had my share of life’s ups and downs. If we have to close our doors, I’ll find something else to do.”
In a statement, Tony Abboud, executive director of the Vapor Technology Association, said the advocacy organization shares concerns about underage use of e-cigarettes, but wants to preserve flavorings.
Seattle Times staff reporter Nicole Brodeur contributed to this report.