Spike Babaian, owner of the VapeNY.com store refills her vaping device with a flavored liquid, Jan. 2, 2020, in New York. U.S. health officials will ban most flavored e-cigarettes popular with underage teenagers, but with major exceptions that benefit vaping manufacturers, retailers and adults who use the nicotine-emitting devices. (Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

Spike Babaian, owner of the VapeNY.com store refills her vaping device with a flavored liquid, Jan. 2, 2020, in New York. U.S. health officials will ban most flavored e-cigarettes popular with underage teenagers, but with major exceptions that benefit vaping manufacturers, retailers and adults who use the nicotine-emitting devices. (Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

Editorial: State still needs a full ban on vaping flavors

A state Senate bill offers needed provisions but not the ban on flavors that was first intended.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Not that it was planned this way, but as Washington state’s 120-day emergency ban on flavored vaping products expires today, a federal ban on flavored e-cigarettes begins. Sort of. A bit.

In October, amid reports of a pneumonia-like illness that sickened thousands and killed more than 40 e-cigarette users nationwide, state and federal health authorities began a crackdown on vaping products, most of it centered on the e-cigarette pods that came in candy-shop flavors of fruit, mint and baked goods.

The chemicals used as a flavoring ingredient in vaping products weren’t the culprit in last year’s outbreak of illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would instead find the cause was vitamin E acetate, which was being used mostly in marijuana vaping products to adjust levels of THC, the psychoactive component in cannabis.

But — if not to blame in that particular health scare — the flavors targeted at youths have been convincingly tied to a pandemic rise in the use of vaping products among teens, so much so that the restrooms in some high schools are known as “juulrooms,” for the popular Juul brand of e-cigarettes that many teens favor.

Recent data collected by federal health officials show that more than 1 in 4 high school students reported vaping in 2019, up from 1 in 5 in 2018. Nationwide, more than 5 million youths now use vaping products. In Washington state, about 30 percent of 12th graders in a 2018 statewide survey said they vaped, up 10 percentage points from two years previous; among 10th graders, vaping increased to 21 percent from 13 percent; and among eighth graders, use increased to 10 percent up from 6 percent.

The temporary ban by the state Board of Health was meant as a placeholder until state lawmakers could adopt legislation, requested by Gov. Jay Inslee, that would make the flavor ban permanent. While that proposal, Senate Bill 6254, was introduced and passed out of the Senate’s health committee, provisions for a flavor ban were largely removed by the committee this week.

The amended legislation will allow flavored e-cigarette products, but restricts their sale at retail outlets only to those 21 or older, in keeping with the state law that took effect at the end of the year, increasing the age limit to purchase tobacco and vaping products.

There’s “very strong evidence,” Board of Health policy analyst Cait Lang-Perez told the Senate committee in January, that a full ban on flavors would decrease the use of vaping products among teens and lead to fewer youths starting their use, and further that exemptions limit the effectiveness of such policies.

Yet, even without the flavor ban, the legislation still contains needed provisions to protect health, some The Herald Editorial Board had recommended earlier, including a ban on products using vitamin E acetate.

Remaining in the legislation are provisions that will require all product manufacturers be licensed by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board; that manufacturers and distributors provide a list of ingredients to the state Department of Health; permit the Liquor and Cannabis Board to restrict sales if the Department of Health has determined a product may be harmful to health; limit the nicotine concentration in vape products; and impose a 37 percent excise tax on flavored vaping products, with the revenue directed toward a state public health services account.

The Board of Health isn’t expected to extend its temporary ban before the legislation is adopted. However, a federal flavor ban does begin today, but it, too, is limited in scope.

The ban applies to those flavored vape products that use pre-filled pods, with the exception of tobacco and menthol flavors. Notably, Juul Labs, a leading maker of the pods, had already pulled its flavored pods, except its tobacco and menthol flavors. But other flavored products are exempted from the federal ban, including those using “open-tank” systems and newly available disposable e-cigarettes, The Washington Post reported.

“I think it’s a joke to call it a vaping ban at all,” Erika Sward, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association, told the Post.

Even without a full ban on flavors, the state legislation should be adopted by lawmakers and signed by the governor. But health officials should continue their watch on how many teens are using e-cigarettes and vaping products.

E-cigarettes have long been defended by supporters as a “safer” alternative to cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, and those makers have banked on that claim. Get a load of the “medical science” message implied in use of the word “Labs” in Juul’s corporate name.

While e-cigarettes may not carry the same risks of lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease as traditional cigarettes, they are not without risks and health impacts, especially for young people.

Briefly, the CDC warns that: Nicotine is highly addictive and can affect a still-developing brain, contributing to problems with concentration, learning and impulse control. Some chemicals in vaping ingredients have been linked to lung disease and have shown the presence of heavy metals, such as lead, nickel and tin. And vaping, by developing an addiction to nicotine, often leads to smoking.

Using sweet flavors to attract teens, backed by less-than-honest claims of safety, tobacco companies — even as the numbers of those smoking have dropped — have turned to e-cigarettes to build a new customer base for nicotine. Those companies shouldn’t be allowed to use flavors to sugar-coat their intentions.

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