Politics & Government

Why vape shops in Washington are welcoming new state regulations, but concerned about federal rules

Phoenix Vapor Cafe company CEO Dave Buckley, along with longtime employee Myka Grandy and President John Conner, from left, don’t find the pending new state regulations onerous as requirements such as child-proof merchandise and age-checking customers have been done at the Olympia store since it opened.
Phoenix Vapor Cafe company CEO Dave Buckley, along with longtime employee Myka Grandy and President John Conner, from left, don’t find the pending new state regulations onerous as requirements such as child-proof merchandise and age-checking customers have been done at the Olympia store since it opened. sbloom@theolympian.com

Businesses selling e-cigarettes, liquid nicotine and other vapor products in Washington are navigating new sets of state and federal rules, a major switch for the industry that was largely unregulated until this year.

The state requirements that kick in this weekend are welcome, according to some owners of vapor businesses. It’s the federal regulations that began taking effect in August that worry some business owners. They’re afraid that the cost of complying could lead to closures and send a wave of vapers back to cigarettes.

Marc Jarrett, co-owner of Banzai Vapors, a vapor liquid manufacturer and online retailer in Lakewood, said Washington made reasonable compromises while the FDA set a “pretty high bar” for “a lot of small-business owners.”

Federal regs might prove costly

The federal regulations were announced in May by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which hailed them as groundbreaking protections from the dangers of tobacco.

The rules extend existing federal tobacco regulations to e-cigarettes and other vapor products, including flavored liquid for vaping devices that doesn’t contain nicotine. Enforcement of the rules will roll out over the next few years.

Though many of the federal packaging and labeling requirements are similar to state regulations and won’t be hard to meet, some parts of the FDA guidelines are troubling to vapor businesses.

Among those guidelines: Vapor liquids that haven’t been on the market since 2007 — virtually all of them — eventually will have to be authorized by the FDA before being sold. The authorization process is costly and could cripple smaller businesses in the industry, Jarrett said.

Vaping industry groups are challenging the FDA’s regulations in court, according to online news outlet The Hill.

The FDA has taken steps to reduce impact on small businesses and estimates the cost of compliance is lower than some in the vapor industry have feared, FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum said. The liquids need to be subject to quality-control protections while the safety of vaping continues to be studied, he wrote in an email.

But state Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, who sponsored Washington state’s less restrictive rules, said placing costly regulations on e-cigarettes has risks. While vaping isn’t healthy, he said, it’s a better alternative to cigarettes and should stay cheaper to discourage cigarette use.

“At this point I believe we have a vested interest in people who are smoking switching to vaping,” he said. “For (people who vape) to have a little more money in their pocket as the result of that decision, I’m OK with that.”

Dammeier is not alone in thinking smokers should vape if they can’t kick their nicotine addiction. A major medical organization in the United Kingdom has been urging cigarette users to vape instead if they can’t quit, because it says studies show vaping is less harmful than smoking. Smoking kills nearly 500,000 people a year in the U.S. and 6 million people worldwide, according to the U.S. Center For Disease Control.

Still, many health organizations in the U.S. haven’t been singing the praises of vaping, including the FDA, which now bars vape stores from claiming e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to traditional smoking.

Mary McHale, a policy expert in Washington for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said the organization is happy with the new federal regulations, in part because the FDA put vaping and tobacco under the same umbrella.

McHale said e-cigarettes are not proved to help people quit smoking, and said kids are drawn to vaping because of a “misconception” that it’s harmless.

“I think we could say they are probably less harmful than combustible cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe, and it doesn’t mean they’re cessation products,” McHale said.

The University of Washington School of Public Health published a report on e-cigarettes in 2015 that says it’s still unclear if e-cigarettes help people quit smoking and may act as a gateway for nonsmokers to use traditional cigarettes.

The report says more expensive e-cigarettes would reduce “both adult and underage smoking.”

VIDEO: New state vaping regulations

Marc Jarrett, vice president of Pink Lung Brigade, talks about the new state regulations for vaping.

Peter Haley and Melissa Santos phaley@thenewstribune.com/msantos@thenewstribune.com

State rules ‘easy’

Meanwhile, retailers say they have not had a problem gearing up for Washington’s new state rules targeting sales of vapor products.

“State level was easy,” said Larry Pierini, owner of South Sound Vapor Lounge, which has locations in Lacey and Olympia.

Employees at Phoenix Vapor Cafe in Olympia already checked customer identification to make sure they weren’t selling to minors, labeled liquid nicotine properly and sold it in childproof packaging — requirements of the state law approved this year.

Jarrett said he estimates 95 to 99 percent of manufacturers in the industry already used childproof packaging, even if they made minor tweaks to their labeling to comply with the new law.

“We’ve had a lot of very progressive business owners and good actors that were implementing good practices before the regulations were even here,” Jarrett said.

About 1,400 companies have applied this year for the new licenses that permit sales or distribution of vapor products in the state, according to Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the state Liquor and Cannabis Board. About 1,200 have been approved, Carpenter said.

While the licensing system continues to get up and running, stores that have applied for licenses and are waiting to be approved won’t be penalized, “so long as they’re acting in good faith,” chief enforcement officer Justin Nordhorn said.

Before the new licensing set-up, there were essentially no state regulations on vapor products, although some local governments, including Pierce County, had their own rules for sales and use.

State law only prohibited sales of vapor products to minors, something that was rarely checked. Enforcement was “us keeping ourselves accountable,” Phoenix Vapor Cafe CEO Dave Buckley said.

The new state law goes further by governing where people can vape. The state now prohibits vaping inside schools or within 500 feet of them. School buses and elevators are off limits too, along with playgrounds where kids are present. Those regulations went into effect in July.

Cities and local governments are largely barred from creating more rules on vapor sales. But they’re allowed to place more restrictions on where people can vape.

Pierce County banned vaping in indoor public places and places of employment in July, but they allow licensed vape shops to offer samples. The county also set some restrictions on in-store ventilation at vaping retailers that Jarrett is fighting in court as part of the advocacy-group Pink Lung Brigade. Jarrett is vice president of the group.

“We don’t think anyone should be exposed to second-hand vapor,” said Edie Jeffers, a spokeswoman for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. “Adults who are choosing to vape is one issue, but you should not have to be in situations where you’re unnecessarily exposed to second-hand vapor.”

Thurston County has no additional regulations.

To enforce the retail aspects of the state law, the LCB is planning to dedicate six employees to making compliance checks, according to Nordhorn. Four will focus on the west side of the state, and another two will check the east side.

Not everybody agrees that the state has the better approach. McHale said the cancer society fought for vaping products to be considered tobacco products under state law, as they are in federal eyes.

“We see these products in the same bucket, (and) we believe e-cigarettes should be included under tobacco products,” McHale said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein