Protecting children from tobacco addiction has been a years-long grind for Washington state leaders. It’s difficult because the industry employs powerful lobbyists. It’s exasperating because the industry always stays two steps ahead in making nicotine attractive and available to young people.
After several years of failed attempts, the Legislature in 2006 finally banned distributors from giving free samples of cigarettes, chewing tobacco and other products. In 2009, it outlawed novelty lighters that look like toys.
This year, lawmakers took one of their boldest steps yet – one that puts them ahead of the curve nationally – by adopting a good package of regulations for the booming vape and electronic cigarette market. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill.
The rules require warning labels and childproof packaging, disclosure of nicotine content, a ban on online sales to minors, and no vaping in parks, playgrounds and other places where children gather. Retailers and distributors will have to buy licenses to sell e-cigarettes, e-juice cartridges and other paraphernalia.
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The legislation arrives just in time, if not a little late. Vapor products, which offer more flavors than Kool-Aid and portray a cool-but-pseudo-safe mystique, are growing in popularity among youth.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2014 that youth use of e-cigarettes tripled between 2011 and 2013. More than a quarter of a million young people had never smoked a combustible cigarette before vaping, the CDC reported. This suggests the birth of a new habit for too many adolescents, rather than the kicking of an old one.
One unfortunate aspect of Washington’s new rules is that they hijack local efforts to crack down on the vape scene. The five county health departments that made their own rules, including Pierce, will have to stop enforcing them and collecting license fees.
But give credit to Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department officials. The tough steps they took last year to regulate hundreds of vape dealers created leverage as the final bill was put together. They helped ensure the cost of state licenses – including higher fees for sellers of regular cigarettes – would generate enough revenue for vape-shop stings and other state enforcement. And they won local discretion to ban most public indoor vaping, even in adults-only establishments.
The bill is far from perfect, but compromise doesn’t aspire to perfection. Senate Bill 6328 ended up as an honorable hybrid of elements proposed by Republicans, including bill sponsor Sen. Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup, and Democrats such as Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
The Democrats staked out a position more aligned with local health officials: that e-cigarettes deliver nicotine, chemicals and additives that may prove harmful to people of all ages.
Philosophically, Dammeier says he leans toward the position that inhaling vapor mostly made of water is “less unhealthy” than smoking tobacco, and a viable alternative for smokers trying to wean themselves off the hard stuff. "I wanted to keep that door open for a cigarette smoker to vape."
But only if that smoker/vaper is an adult, he says emphatically.
This is where the two sides found common ground.
State leaders can take satisfaction in their youth-focused compromise, though they’ll likely have to return to the bargaining table once science catches up with policy. The potential health and addiction hazards of vaping lack the longitudinal research that eventually rocked the tobacco industry. The U.S. surgeon general said last year that public health officials are “in desperate need of clarity” with regard to e-cigarettes.
Pierce health leaders, meantime, can take pride knowing they helped frame the negotiations. In the end, they secured safeguards not only for young people in their county, but for children in the other 38 counties as well.