EVERETT — A nondescript sweatshirt adds a new wrinkle in the fight against vaping, especially in schools.
The drawstrings on the black hoodie are mouthpieces connected to a vape pen in an easily concealed pocket, allowing a student to discreetly walk the halls with their head in the clouds.
The garment, in addition to a smartwatch that doubles as a vape device, were some of what was discussed Monday morning when U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen sat down at the Snohomish County Public Health District office in Everett with educators, health officials and state regulators to talk about vaping problems and policy.
“The only healthy option for vaping is to not vape,” Larsen said.
“Congress needs to take action on this public health crisis.”
The 10-term Democratic congressman said he supports legislation to raise the national age to purchase tobacco products to 21 and federal bans for flavored vaping goods and all online sales.
The vaping frenzy partially came from its marketing to teens, as well as an alternative to smoking.
Medical officials said they don’t have any data on the long-term effects of vaping, partially because many companies behind the products have chosen not to seek FDA approval.
“It’s very hard for us to explain we don’t have the research needed,” said Rocio Castillo-Foell, health education manager at Sea Mar Community Health Centers.
Snohomish County Health District spokesperson Heather Thomas recalled a sentiment from a King County physician: “Everybody says it’s safer, but being safer than the leading cause of death isn’t a very high bar.”
Then, an increase in vaping-related illnesses led to statewide reform.
Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control reports 47 deaths and nearly 2,300 medical cases this year related to vaping.
In Washington, 18 severe vaping-related illnesses have been reported, four of those in Snohomish County, said Lacy Fehrenbach, assistant secretary of prevention and community health for the state Department of Health. Five of the 18 patients are between 10 and 19 years old.
The rise in cases spurred Gov. Jay Inslee to direct the state Board of Health in September to issue a temporary ban on flavored vaping goods, which it did in early October. The ban is still in effect.
Before that, Inslee signed a bill that made Washington the ninth state to raise the age to buy tobacco products to 21. It becomes law in January.
Multiple members of the round-table discussion Monday asked for strict federal reform.
Larsen criticized President Donald Trump, who announced in September a plan to ban flavored vaping products before reversing his stance citing job loss and economic concerns.
The president is blowing smoke, Larsen said. The economy grew before vaping and will grow without it, he said.
“He needs to take a public health lens to this decision and not be concerned about who’s going to vote for him,” Larsen said. “The impact vaping can have on our youth ought to be the focus instead of the reasons he’s using to back away from a commitment he made. This is one of those promises made, promises-not-kept issues for the president.”
Since the flavor ban went into action in Washington, about 400 of the state’s nearly 4,000 licensed vape shops have gone out of business, said Justin Nordhom, enforcement chief for the state Liquor and Cannabis Board.
Nordhom said most of the now-defunct shops were devoted entirely to selling the vape products, whereas others, like general convenience stores, were less affected.
Now that flavored vape juices are off the shelves, consumers are turning to online markets, where the state can’t regulate what’s sold.
The state and Congress should consider licensing the vape juice producers in addition to sellers, Nordhom said.
“We have a lot of folks that are manufacturing in back rooms and things are coming from out of state,” he said. “If we want to have a more structured regulatory environment, the licensed manufacturing locations would be a step in the right direction.”
When it comes to marijuana, THC vapor products make up about 20% of all recreational sales, Nordhom said. The ban hasn’t seemed to affect individual marijuana shops, he said, but some manufacturers of the THC cartridges have closed.
Vaping has been a problem in schools across the county and country, where students are using vaping devices in bathrooms — and the quick-dissolving clouds leave some administrators chasing ghosts.
Lakewood High School Principal Jeanette Grisham said vaping at school became so prevalent students started referring to bathrooms as “vape rooms.”
If a student gets caught with a device at Lakewood High, administrators confiscate it and make a call home to the parents.
Grisham said the school’s resource officer has taken about $3,000 worth of the vape pens from students over the last few years.
After a second offense, students are required to take an online course which teaches decision-making skills and tips for kicking the habit.
One discipline that’s not being considered is suspension. Pushing kids off campus, away from the district’s resources, gives students a “vape-cation,” said Jennifer Reid, a health district specialist who curated the online course.
This year, fewer students are being caught vaping at Lakewood High, Grisham said, but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped using their devices altogether. Fear of confiscation leads students to leave the pens at home, she said.