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Washington state lawmakers back down from flavored vape ban | Feb. 5, 2020

By Claudia Yaw Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers have backed down from their proposal to ban flavored vape products and address the epidemic of youth vaping and nicotine addiction.

Originally, Senate Bill 6254, introduced at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee, would have made permanent the emergency ban on flavored vape products that was approved by the Board of Health in October. But the legislation was drastically amended Monday in the Senate, and now allows for the sale of such products to those 21 and older — in line with Washington’s new tobacco and vapor law.

Inslee’s senior public health policy adviser Molly Voris says the governor is “disappointed” with the amendment, and that they are still pushing for a broad ban on flavors. Voris also noted that although the amendment excludes menthol and tobacco from the definition of “flavored” vape products, Centers for Disease Control data shows that youths are still using those products.

According to Voris, the emergency ban will not be extended, despite the weeks-long gap between the end of the ban and the implementation of any potential legislation. Flavored products could be back on store shelves by Friday.

The 120-day statewide ban, which expires Thursday, came last year after the U.S. Surgeon General proclaimed youth vapor use an epidemic. In 2019, more than 5 million youths vaped — an increase of about 1.4 million since 2018.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who introduced the amendment, said the emergency ban was appropriate at the time, but officials have since identified Vitamin E acetate as the cause of the mysterious vape-related deaths last year. She said her amended version of the bill still bans vape products with that chemical, limits nicotine levels, and puts a 37% excise tax on flavored vape products. Cleveland, who chairs the Senate Health & Long Term Care Committee, said the bill “continues to meet primary goals,” like preventing vape-related deaths.

Opponents of the permanent ban similarly argue that vape-related deaths caused by Vitamin E acetate in black-market products have spurred an unfounded hysteria targeting legal products.

However, the CDC says even legal products are harmful to young people, and the high levels of nicotine can hinder brain development and impact learning, memory, and attention span. The CDC has also said that young people who vape are more likely to smoke regular cigarettes in the future.

In a health impact review of the bill, Caitlin Lang-Perez, a health policy analyst at the state Board of Health, told lawmakers that there is “very strong evidence” that a flavor ban would decrease initiation and use of vape among young people.

To those who argue that flavored vapor products helped them quit smoking, Kathy Lofy, of the Department of Health, said there is no definitive science to back that up.

“We wish that we had definitive science around the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a cessation device or as a harm reduction strategy, but we do not have that science,” Lofy said. She noted that many adults who vape are also smoking cigarettes, increasing their nicotine intake and making it harder to quit.

Public school students have also showed support for the ban, telling lawmakers that their bathrooms have been turned into “juulrooms” — a reference to the Juul brand of vaping products — by intensely addicted kids.

Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, did not sign on to the original bill, but signed the amended version. Coming up on the first cut-off date, when bills must be out of committee, Dhingra says the amendment “simply gets it out of committee, but this is not the final wording.”

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, introduced the bill but is not on the Health & Long Term Care Committee. Kuderer said she did not know of the specific amendment beforehand, but was aware that lawmakers had concerns about the impact on vape shops, adults who vape in order to quit smoking, and the black-market.

House Democratic Speaker Laurie Jinkins said any legislation should be based on the CDC’s research and recommendations.

“I’m not going to judge my colleagues,” Kuderer said, noting that she is hopeful that the House will change the legislation back to its original intent. “But I’m going to work very hard to make sure that flavors are banned.”

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