State Board of Health votes to ban flavored vaping products

Washington's Board of Health voted Wednesday to ban flavored vaping products, including THC vapor products.

The initial ban will go in effect Thursday and is expected to last four months, but can be renewed. It applies to products containing nicotine as well as the cannabis extract THC. It would not apply to tribal shops, but Gov. Jay Inslee's staff said they're reaching out to tribal governments for cooperation.

The public meeting brought hundreds of people from the vaping community from across the state.

They packed the room to get their two minutes with the Washington State Board of Health.

The board's vote to ban flavors for 120 days brought anger and tears.

"We have so many people losing their livelihoods right now. Look at how many people are crying out here," said Steve Berry, who owns a vape shop in Vancouver, WA.

The vote came despite passionate pleas from more than 250 people who signed up to speak up against the ban.

"Please, please protect the people you were hired to  protect," said James Hoy of Oak Harbor.

One after another, former smokers said vaping - particularly with flavors is the only thing that got them to quit.

"I smoked two packs a day for 20 years and I thought it was going to kill me. This little box saved my life. Please, please be logical, please," said Mark Berlin, who vapes.

But others – including the American Heart Association and some students - spoke during public comment to the board of health in  favor of the ban.

"There are kids at my school, even in the 6th grade, who are skipping school to Juul in the bathroom," said Olive Smith, an 8th grader.

She and studies say most kids get their flavored vapes from people old enough to buy it.

"I'm truly sorry for the business impact on these business owners, but taking away flavors is the best way to immediately prevent nicotine addicted youth," Smith said.

The board of health said there's no evidence that flavors cause the vaping illness cases that's swept across the country -- but said it does get kids interested in vaping -- and then hooked.

The action follows concern over the mysterious lung illness that has sickened hundreds of people and killed more than a dozen across the country.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order Sept. 27 asking the Department of Health to issue the emergency rule at it's next meeting.

Inslee said the flavored products especially appeal to youth.

"Flavors exist for one reason and one reason only - and that is to make them more appealing to young children," Inslee said.  "The FDA does not know and review the contents of what's in the liquids. Anything can be included in the mix. It's the wild west and that's one reason we're having a health crisis."

"We take this matter very seriously," said Keith Grellner, chair of the State Board of Health. "Research shows that flavors contribute to the appeal and use of vapor products among young people. It is our duty to keep the people of Washington safe. Protecting people's health and well-being is our number one priority."

A number of vaping advocates have said that vaping has helped people quit smoking and that's a reason to not totally end the practice.

"They're not even giving us a chance to sell out of what we have," said Margo Ross, who owns Cloud 509 in Moses Lake.

She and other vape shop owners across Washington state say the ban will force them to close.

"Everybody looks at the side of the children. And I'm a mother. I understand that side," she said. "I only sell to people who are over 18. I don't do this to make money, I don't do because I am hooking children. I do this because I help people," Ross said.

But she said adults almost exclusively vape flavors too. And the ban means she will have to close her store in Moses Lake.

"I will have to put my LLC in bankruptcy. I will not be able to afford the bills I have," Ross said.

The owner of Ausum Vapor in Ballard (also called O Vapor) has six shops across the Puget Sound. He said 99 percent of his e-juice sales are flavors, and the ban means he will start closing his stores on Monday – and will be forced to lay off his 25 employees.

The order for the ban comes after a new tax that charges $.09 cents per milliliter of product – something Ross said already forced her to close her other store.

Hundreds of Americans have been reported to have a vaping-related breathing illness, and the death toll has risen to 18, according to the CDC.

>>RELATED: What we know about the vaping-linked disease

As of Oct. 1, 1,080 lung injury cases associated with using e-cigarette, or vaping, products have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 48 states and 1 U.S. territory. Eighteen deaths have been confirmed in 15 states. All patients have reported a history of using e-cigarette, or vaping, products, according to the CDC.

>>RELATED: Pierce County man files vaping lawsuit

Over the summer, health officials in a few states began noticing reports of people developing severe breathing illnesses, with the lungs apparently reacting to a caustic substance. The only common factor in the illnesses was that the patients had all recently vaped.

As a national investigation started and broadened, reports have increased dramatically.

>>RELATED: What we know (and don't) about Juul, teen vaping and illness

The agency's count includes only illnesses that have met certain criteria. Other illnesses are also being investigated.

Complicating the investigation are apparently conflicting medical reports about what's been seen in the lungs of different patients. Some doctors suggested patients' lungs are being clogged and inflamed by oils from vaping liquids, but a report published this week by the New England Journal of Medicine pointed to the kind of chemical burns that might come from poisonous gases.

Federal investigators say that nearly 80 percent of people who have come down with the vaping illness reported using products containing THC, the high-inducing chemical found in marijuana. They have not traced the problem to any single product or ingredient. But investigators are increasingly focused on thickeners and additives found in illegal THC cartridges sold on the black market.

>>RELATED: Marijuana vaping product sales sink amid lung disease scare

But some patients have said they vaped only nicotine. Currently, health officials are advising people not to use any vaping product until the cause is better understood.

The Associated Press and KIRO 7 reporter Deedee Sun contributed to this report.

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