Health, labeling concerns erupt in wake of governor’s e-cigarette excise tax proposal

What is a vapor product?

A vapor product refers to any device that uses a battery to heat a solution and produce a vapor intended for inhalation.

It also includes the cartridge or container of solution that may or may not include concentrated nicotine.

Electronic cigarettes, electronic nicotine delivery systems, electronic cigars, electronic cigarillos, electronic pipes and vape pens are all vapor products.

OLYMPIA - Proposed legislation focusing on e-cigarettes and other vapor inhalation products would tighten the state’s control over the legal smoking age, labeling and advertising requirements and retailer licensing.

House Bill 1645 takes a holistic approach to vapor-product regulation, according to prime sponsor Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), who says this is the first comprehensive e-cigarettes bill in the United States.

“We are facing a burgeoning public health crisis with e-cigarettes and we need to approach it as a public health issue and provide people with an understanding of safety risks,” said Pollet, a clinical instructor at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.

“We also need to take very quick action to prevent our children from becoming addicted to this new product,” Pollet said.

A 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than a quarter-million youths who had previously never smoked used an e-cigarette. Washington state’s 2012 Healthy Youth Survey showed that 4 percent of 10th graders used e-cigarettes within 30 days of when the survey was conducted.

“We don’t tax the product and we don’t regulate the product,” said Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle), who with Pollet is co-sponsoring HB 1645.

“We have to modernize our laws and acknowledge there’s been an evolution in how people deliver the active and addictive product of nicotine,” Carlyle explained.

A tax on such products is part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s new revenue package to help fill what he describes as a funding gap for education. Inslee’s proposed budget for the 2015-2017 biennium projects $18.1 million from a 95 percent tax on the wholesale value of vapor products, which is modeled after the state’s tobacco-product tax.

This number is projected to grow to $78.4 million in the following biennium, according to Kim Schmanke, communications director for the Washington State Department of Revenue.

Money collected from this 95 percent excise tax on vapor products would be split, with 90 percent of the funds going to the state general fund and 10 percent to a new public health services account. If adopted the bill would require the Department of Health to use the funds for tobacco control and prevention programs.

Rep. Chris Reykdal (D-Tumwater) agrees there is significant need to address vapor-product regulation from a health standpoint. However, Reykdal said making the school systems more dependent on vapor products as a tax source is not wise public policy.

“I’m not ruling out the tax side,” Reykdal said. “I just want a better, more rational conversation with all the parties on what is the best way to meet the health outcome and still have a rational tax policy.”

Zach McLain, owner of Future Vapor on Capitol Hill in Seattle, says there’s no proof vapor products hurt people in the way cigarettes do.  

“It’s the tar and carcinogen that are harmful in cigarettes, and when you take that out of the equation, you have harm reduction,” McLain said.

“We’re all looking for a way to better our lives; we’re not looking for a way to harm ourselves.”

McLain says he’s helped more than 2,000 people in the last couple of years make the switch from cigarettes to vapor products.

“It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done to help people discover this alternative to smoking,” McLain said. “It just feels great.”

McLain says a 95 percent tax on vapor products and hardware would put him out of business.

“I’m not going to be here helping people discover this alternative while people are going to continue to smoke cigarettes if the price is the same,” he said.

Paul Davis, program manager for tobacco prevention and control at the Washington Department of Health, does not dispute that many people are turning to vapor products to try to quit cigarettes. However, many people continue to smoke cigarettes in addition to vaping, so it’s not really effective, he concluded.

“If everybody quit smoking and went to e-cigarettes, and we didn’t have new kids starting, it’s pretty hard to argue that wouldn’t be a public-health benefit,” Davis said.

“But we know we got a lot of kids starting and we’re not sure if people are completely quitting smoking and trading to these new vapor products.”

In addition to the 95 percent excise tax on all sales, the bill bans all internet sales of vapor products to residents in Washington, bans all flavored vapor products in Washington, regulates the labeling and advertising of vapor products, and creates a licensing system.

Distributors and retailers of vapor products would have to be licensed with the Liquor Control Board and comply with recordkeeping and audit requirements under terms contained in HB 1645. Currently, vape shop owners only need a business license to sell vapor products.

Another vapor-product bill in Olympia, Senate Bill 5477, would require child-resistant packaging for all vapor products sold in the state.

The Toxic Trends Report from the Washington Poison and Drug information Center shows a 1,000 percent increase in call volume on e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine from 2012 to 2014.

Dr. Alexander Garrard, clinical managing director at the center, says in 2014 the center answered 182 total calls involving e-cigarette exposure, 109 of which involved children between the ages of 1 and 3. He says many of the concentrated nicotine products smell like candy and come in bottles that appeal to children.

“The labeling itself is very cartoony - meaning bright colors and standardized child packaging,” Garrard said. “Many adults who are users do not associate the product as a potential poison in children.”

HB 1645 requires the state health department to create rules regulating the labeling and advertising of vapor products. It would require manufacturers that sell, distribute or advertise vapor products to disclose – on labels and in ads – the nicotine content of the vapor product, as well as warnings about the harmful effects of nicotine.

The concentration of nicotine in e-juice, which is the refillable liquid for vapor products, can contain upward of 36 milligrams of nicotine per milliliter. That’s about 180 milligrams of nicotine in one teaspoon, or the equivalent of 14 cigarettes, Garrard said.

“There’s no standardizing of concentration and no oversight of quality assurance in e-juice,” said Garrard – the managing director at the Washington Poison and Drug Information Center.

“That’s a big problem because you really don’t know what you’re buying,” he said. 

Vapor products are relatively new, only making waves in the mainstream market in the last couple of years, Garrard said.

Because of the increasing popularity and social acceptance of vapor products among youth, more young people are smoking, he added. Youth are being exposed to these substances and forming the unhealthy habits at a younger age, Garrard continued.

“A lack of research on the health implications of e-cigarettes doesn’t mean vapor products are safe products, it just means there’s a lack of research,” Garrard said.

“More and more research is coming out daily.”

Garrard referenced an American Heart Association scientific review that found no proof e-cigarettes are effective smoking cessation devices. The study said e-cigarette emissions are not harmless water vapor, as frequently claimed, and the lack of product regulation by the FDA means companies do not have to disclose their manufacturing process or their ingredient list.

He also referenced another study from Portland State University that found high levels of hidden formaldehyde in e-cigarette vapor – 5 to 15 times above the exposure found in a cigarette.

Pollet, besides co-sponsoring HB 1645, is the sponsor of HB 1448. The Seattle lawmaker said HB 1448 would increase the legal smoking age for all tobacco and vapor products to 21.

He says the tobacco industry markets tobacco and vapor products to young people because it has known for decades that nicotine addiction happens through the formation of nicotine receptors in the brain during a person’s teenage and early adult years.

Pollet says the argument that vapor products are a cessation tool for cigarette smokers is invalid because the products are advertised to entice teens and young adults, not as a means to quit smoking.

“Without addicting people from 18 to 21, tobacco companies will not have a new generation of addicts,” Pollet said.

“If we can raise the smoking age and the vaping age to 21, we will have saved the generation of cancer and other harm.”

‑ Alice Day is a reporter for the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.



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