From The Stranger

Washington’s fans of e-cigarettes just got a flavorful hit of good news.

After months of dealing with Gov. Jay Inslee’s ban on all flavored e-cigarettes, the local e-cigarette industry was bracing for lawmakers to make that flavor ban permanent. But after a committee hearing yesterday, the proposed bill banning flavors has now been changed to allow flavored e-cigarettes in Washington state.

The Washington State Senate approved a legislative amendment yesterday that dramatically changes their proposed flavored vape ban. Under the approved amendment, flavors are no longer banned but rather are restricted to only being sold at retailers that only allow access to people over the age of 21. Tobacco-flavored and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes would still be allowed to be sold in convenience stores.

Lawmakers have been trying to move quickly to update the state’s vapor rules before Inslee’s emergency ban on flavored vapes expires this Friday. Inslee called for the emergency ban on flavorings in September of last year after thousands of people across the country fell ill with a sometimes-fatal lung injury believed to be caused by vaping. Flavorings were never thought to be causing the illness, yet Inslee still went after the flavored products anyway.

Lawmakers appeared to be ready to do the same, proposing a bill that created an outright ban on any flavor of e-cigarettes other than tobacco. But the Senate’s Health & Long Term Care Committee unanimously approved an amendment Monday afternoon that retreats from the ban. In addition to allowing flavored e-cigarettes, the amendment, proposed by Sen. Annette Cleveland (D—Vancouver), institutes a new 37 percent sales tax on flavored vapor products.

The retreat from the flavor ban did not seem controversial among the committee’s members, although Sen. Karen Keiser, a powerful Democrat from south King County, made an ambiguous statement that more work needs to be done on the bill before it becomes law.

“I also think we might well have more work to do on these flavors, but I do think this is a positive step,” Keiser said Monday. “And this bill will be going to the next step and we’ve got more work to do ahead of us.”

The bill’s new sales tax on vapor products appeared more controversial during Monday’s hearing than the bill’s permitting of flavored e-cigarettes. Sen. Emily Randall, a Democrat from Bremerton, said she was worried about the impact of the new vape tax on the poor.

“I continue to be concerned that we are leveling higher and higher sales taxes, some of the most regressive taxes, on hard-working members of our community,” Randall said.

Sen. Randi Becker, a Republican from Eatonville, proposed a second amendment that would have removed any new regulations on vape flavors and instead made only vitamin E acetate illegal. Vitamin E acetate is the chemical believed to have caused the vape lung injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Becker said her bill was aimed at narrowly blocking the cause of the crisis.

“For me it was looking at what is the reality—it was the vitamin E acetate [that caused the lung injuries],” Becker said during Monday’s hearing.

Becker’s amendment failed.

Sen. Ann Rivers, a Republican from La Center, said she was worried that the strict nicotine limits in the bill would create a large black market for e-cigarettes and that people, including young people, would still be able to get unregulated black market vape products.

“Just this weekend I had the chance to visit with some high school kids from my district who informed me that they didn’t care what we did with this because they had the ability to go across the border and get whatever they want,” Rivers said.

Inslee’s vape ban has been criticized—including extensively by this newspaper—for inadvertently creating a black market for these flavored nicotine products. Inslee himself has admitted that flavorings were never believed to be causing the lung injury. It’s not flavors, but rather additives found in black market vapes that are getting people sick and killing them. But Inslee’s ban on flavorings does nothing to address the problems caused by the black market—in fact it creates another incentive for people to go looking on the (entirely unregulated) black market for the products that are no longer legally available.

The Senate’s new vape regulations are still far from being made into law—they still need to go through the Senate Ways and Means Committee before they can get any votes on the Senate floor. New amendments can be proposed and voted on, so the flavor ban could come back. But it looks like, for now at least, state Senators might be in agreement with The Stranger that regulation is better than prohibition.

By Lester Black