EVERETT — When it comes to flavors, these shops are like Baskin-Robbins.
But instead of ice cream, it’s bottles of nicotine juice.
And instead of a mere 31 flavors, there are hundreds — cotton candy, buttered popcorn, lemon, mint, cappuccino, you name it — that create an aromatic cloud of vapor and a nicotine fix.
That can all change based on what the state Board of Health decides on Wednesday.
Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order Sept. 27 asking the state health board to issue the emergency rule at the SeaTac meeting to outlaw flavored vaping products delivering nicotine and THC.
The ban would go into effect Thursday, and only allow products that taste like tobacco or cannabis.
No fruity or dessert flavors. Not even mint.
This stems from a mysterious lung illness associated with using flavored e-cigarette, or vaping, products. These include Juul and other cartridge-based vape pens, the rage of teens way younger than 18, the legal age to vape. But they manage to do it anyway, getting older friends and family members to obtain products for them.
As of Oct. 1, there have been 18 deaths confirmed in 15 states and 1,080 lung injury cases nationwide reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 80 percent of patients were under 35, with 16 percent younger than 18.
In Washington, seven lung illnesses from vaping have been reported.
The first vaping-related illness confirmed in Snohomish County was a woman in her 20s in late September. She purchased the vape liquid from a legal retailer.
About 4,000 stores statewide sell nicotine vaping products. There are about 480 marijuana retailers licensed to sell THC vaping devices, cartridges or oils.
If passed, Washington will join a growing number of other states in banning flavored products. On Tuesday, Montana approved a temporary ban, joining New York, Michigan, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
At Prime Cigar in Mukilteo, employee Malik Khurshid said there was a temporary uptick in sales of flavored products after Inslee announced the possible ban, but sales have since dropped.
The store is in limbo, he said. Plenty of inventory remains on the shelves on one side of the store along with a glass case with vaping hardware such as tanks and refillable canisters.
“If they want to ban it we’ll have to take every single flavor out of there and throw them in a dump,” Khurshid said. “Everything has a shelf life.”
A few miles away on Mukilteo Speedway, PNW Glass & Vape posted a “Flavor Ban Sale” sign in the front window, but a worker there would not comment, per the owner’s instruction.
Khurshid said vape products are 40% of the gross sales at the smoke shop that opened 11 years ago.
“If it passes, we might have to close down,” he said. “Cigarettes alone and all that can’t pay for overhead.”
The store sells Zippo lighters, cigars, smokeless tobacco and cigarettes. A pack of Marlboro’s is $9.37. Most buyers are older, he said.
Each cigarette has about 10 milligrams of nicotine, but much goes up in smoke. Only about 1 to 2 milligrams of nicotine gets inhaled.
E-cigarettes and other vaping products work by heating a liquid to produce an aerosol that users inhale into their lungs. No Zippo needed. The concentrated dose often is higher than cigarettes. Nicotine juices, which fill reusable cartridges, produce a misty vapor cloud while the pre-filled pods for devices like Juul, are low-cloud.
School-age teens and the 18 to 35 group are the main users of vaping products, said Jennifer Reid, Snohomish Health District healthy communities specialist.
“One of the initial draws to vaping devices is the flavors,” Reid said. “The flavors mask the harshness of the nicotine. It makes it a lot easier for them to start using the product and to continue… Especially for teens, these can be damaging to their brains.”
Juul is one of the most popular vapor devices used by teens, who refer to it as Juuling, not vaping.
“It captures the nicotine in a different form. It’s called a salt-based nicotine. It is heated to a vapor at a lower temperature,” Reid said. “It is less harsh and it allows for an increase in nicotine.”
These are not your grandma’s Kools, which can kill you over the long haul.
“Cigarettes are some of the worst things you can do for your body,” Reid said.
But you live long enough to suffer.
According to the CDC, cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S., accounting for more than 480,000 deaths every year, or about 1 in 5 deaths.
Vaping is not recommend as a way to quit smoking, Reid said.
There is limited regulation on the nicotine vapes. “We don’t know what’s in even the ones legally sold in stores,” she said. “Marijuana vapes have slightly more regulation.”
Unlike cigarettes, it is easy for teens to hide vaping from their teachers and parents.
It often smells like scented hand lotion, not tobacco.
The cartridges are even easier to use on the sly and don’t produce a cloud of vapor like the juice. Some resemble flash drives.
In schools, administrators are scrambling to find ways to deter kids from vaping, because detecting the clouds has proven nearly impossible.
“At times, it feels like we’re chasing ghosts,” Everett High School Principal Lance Balla said. “I think it’s criminal that these companies clearly targeted our youth. They need to be held accountable. These things should be illegal — period.”
School staff have been placing signs that outline the dangers of vaping in bathrooms (dubbed as the “Juul room” in some places) and sent letters about vaping devices home to parents.
At the Everett head shop on Evergreen Way where Marcus Esmay works there are about 300 nicotine juice flavors on the wall. Many bottles of flavors are being sold at a discounted price of $10 in preparation of the proposed ban.
“People are coming in and buying 10 to 20 bottles at a time,” said Esmay, who spoke on the condition the store’s name not be used. The store specializes in glass pipes and doesn’t sell tobacco products.
He said Inslee’s popularity among vape sellers is taking a hit.
“People are saying, ‘You got me at climate change and you lost me at banning vaping.’ I feel the same way,” Esmay said.