Members of Washington’s state health board heard from a passionate and raucous audience during its regular meeting Wednesday, where an emergency ban on flavored vape products was on the agenda.
Despite the overwhelming opposition from the crowd, the Washington State Board of Health decided to enact the 120-day ban, to chants of “shame.”
More than 350 people, mostly opponents of the ban, packed the ballroom at the SeaTac Marriott for the meeting, and about 60 people testified during the public comment session. As the ban’s opponents settled in for the vote after a lunch break, the ballroom filled with a sweet, sticky smell of vapor smoke.
Ultimately, each board member stressed that it is a difficult and emotional topic but the safety of youth outweighed the concerns raised at the meeting.
“We are losing another generation” to nicotine, said John Wiesman, Washington’s secretary of the Department of Health (DOH), before casting his vote in favor of the ban.
The emergency ban, which takes effect Thursday, happens to lead into the 2020 legislative session, where the issue is sure to come up. During the last session the Legislature passed a law raising the age to purchase tobacco and vaping products to 21. That law goes into effect in January.
Person after person sat before the board Wednesday, telling stories of how vaping helped them quit smoking cigarettes. They said the ban would kill small businesses across the state that sell flavored vaping liquids to adults.
One of the first speakers was Jared Chipman, who owns Illicit Juice, which makes liquid for e-cigarettes. Dressed in suit pants, a vest, blue-and-white checkered shirt, and tie, he read from a prepared statement but put it down partway through his comments after becoming emotional. After a deep breath, he told the board they should be banning the sale of flavored vape products from gas stations and convenience stores, because teenagers aren’t buying from vape stores.
Many of the speakers who came after Chipman echoed the same sentiment: Get flavored vaping products out of convenience stores and work with the industry to come up with sensible regulations that won’t kill small businesses.
The ban would hurt the adults who use flavored products to stay away from cigarettes, and it would destroy his business, Chipman said in an interview.
“It would shut us down,” he said.
Just before the vote, vaping proponent Matthew Elliott interrupted board chair Keith Grellner, standing up in the front row to beg the board to wait 30 days before making a decision. Grellner gaveled the table and said Elliott, who had spoken earlier, had already been heard. Elliott became agitated and yelled, “shame,” which a good portion of the audience started shouting.
Gov. Jay Inlsee asked the board of health to impose the emergency ban on flavored vaping products in an executive order issued nearly two weeks ago. The order includes the banning of flavored vaping products with THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient.
After the board’s vote, Inslee said in a statement: “I am pleased the State Board of Health agrees we cannot wait to act on this very important public health issue. It comes down to protecting the health of Washingtonians, especially young people. These emergency rules will help protect public health and save lives.”
The health board’s action aligns Washington with at least two other states, Michigan and New York, in banning flavored vape products. Massachusetts went further and enacted a four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products.
Washington has roughly 4,000 e-cigarette retailers and 500 licensed cannabis businesses, according to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Inslee’s order 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 vaping-attributed lung injuries that have made headlines in recent months. Since the lung illnesses started popping up around the country, seven people have been sickened in Washington. Nationally, 23 people have died and nearly 2,000 have fallen ill.
Inslee 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.
Health officials across the nation are struggling to identify the exact cause of the illnesses. Some initial findings have shown that most cases involved people who have used vaping products with THC, 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.
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 been promoted 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.
A handful of elected and public health officials spoke in favor of the ban Wednesday, as did two middle school students from Seattle.
Youth vaping flavored products is a real problem and can be smelled on campus, said Sophie Harrison, an eighth-grader at Seattle’s Hamilton International Middle School.
“A lot of kids think they are safe but this isn’t true,” she told the board. “These companies want us to become addicted.”
The crowd became more boisterous as the public comment period chugged along, cheering emphatically for the vape store owners and customers who testified. When an eighth-grader from Eckstein Middle School in Seattle spoke in favor of the emergency ban, she was booed from the back of the ballroom. The boos were greeted by pleas from other pro-vaping attendees to be respectful of everyone speaking.
The DOH released a free app last week to help stop vaping, targeted toward teenagers and young adults. The app teaches users how to deal with cravings and achieve goals on the path to quitting. App users go through 10 lessons that provide tips on dealing with cravings.