Flavored vape products are no longer on sale in Washington — at least during a 120-day temporary ban that started Thursday.
For Yakima smoke and vape shop owners, that’s 120 days too long.
While health experts say the decision is necessary until the cause of a spate of vaping-related lung illnesses nationwide is determined, business owners say their products save countless former smokers from the more ominous dangers of combustible cigarettes — and they are bracing for major financial losses, layoffs and potential closures.
The Vaping Issue
Nationwide, 1,299 illnesses and 26 deaths related to vapor product use have been documented as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Over 50 percent of patients have been 24 and under, the CDC reports.
In Washington, the state Department of Health has recorded seven vaping-related illnesses. Anecdotal evidence from the emergency room at Astria Regional Medical Center shows a spike in the number of young patients with pneumonia over the last six months.
This comes as vaping among Yakima County youths has been on the rise. In 2018, roughly 22 percent of local surveyed high school seniors reported using vapor products in the last 30 days, compared to 15 percent in 2016, according to the state Healthy Youth Survey.
Amid mounting cases of illnesses, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order in late September directing the state health board to ban the sale of all flavored vaping products. On Wednesday, the board approved the 120-day renewable ban.
In addition to the flavored vape product sale ban, the board’s decision requires non-marijuana vape retailers to post warning signs on the risk of lung disease associated with the products. Health care providers are also required to report cases of vaping-related lung injury.
Marijuana- and tobacco-flavored vape products are not included in the ban, according to Brian Smith, communications director for the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, which is charged with enforcing the ban.
The board is communicating rules about the ban with roughly 4,000 vapor retailers and 500 cannabis retailers, Smith said. Detailed implementation information will be posted on the LCB website, he said.
Local Business Impact
What does this mean for brick-and-mortar smoke and vape shops in Yakima?
“Total devastation,” said Carrie Bertrand, owner of The Vape Spot in West Valley.
Roughly 80 percent of her business was flavored vaping juice sales, while the remainder was made up of vaping hardware — and a “sliver” of unflavored tobacco juice. Her customers were predominantly adults 40 or older.
For more than five years, The Vape Spot has financially supported Bertrand and her son.
“This is my livelihood. This is how I feed my child,” she said. “I’m a single mom of a 5-year-old and we live already just at a middle-class level. But this has supported my son and I, and tomorrow I don’t know how I’ll pay my bills.”
Bertrand said she was waiting for more information about the ban from the LCB, but she feels her fate has already been decided. Her shop will probably fold, she said.
“The writing is on the wall. It’s inevitable: I can’t survive off of tobacco flavors alone,” she added.
Across town, Smoke City owner Moe Ali said his business would lose $100,000 in sales if he was not able to put flavored vape products back on the shelves after the 120-day ban.
“All the smoke shops, all the vape shops, everyone is taking their product down. Everyone is gonna be affected. It’s just a huge loss for everybody,” Ali said. “Now it’s just whether we’re going to be in business — a waiting game for four months to see what happens.”
Brandon Matthews owns Smoke It’s Smoke Shop in downtown Yakima. Roughly 40% of his business is flavored vape juice sales, while another 10% of flavored juice purchases are “impulse buys” from foot traffic.
“So it could be 50 percent of our sales, which is a massive blow to the business,” he said of the ban’s impact.
To Matthews and several smoke and vape shop owners, the ban of vape products was an overreaction considering cigarettes – responsible for 1,300 deaths in the U.S. every day, according to the CDC, compared to the 1,299 vaping-related illnesses to date – are still for sale.
“How is vaping more important than controlling cigarette sales? If we’re killing that many people in cigarette sales, how is that still legal? That’s the million-dollar question,” Matthews said.
Several shop owners said vaping was beneficial, pointing to a high number of adult customers who quit smoking combustible cigarettes with the help from the flavored juice. Bertrand is among them, having broken her 25-year habit with the help of banana-nut-flavored vaping juice. She’s seen the same impact for countless customers, who she worries will revert to combustible cigarettes under the ban.
“It’s been an incredible business watching so many lives saved and so many people benefiting from our product,” she said.
A high proportion of the lung illnesses recorded have also been linked to unregulated juice sales or juices that contain THC or Vitamin E acetate. Several shop owners said those are what officials should be cracking down on.
But health experts are not so sure.
The CDC found that while most recorded patients reported THC use, some patients have reported exclusive nicotine use or combined use. “The possibility that nicotine-containing products play a role in this outbreak cannot be excluded,” the CDC says.
Kristen Maki, communications director of the state Department of Health, elaborated.
“Nationally, about 76 percent of cases reported using THC-containing products and about 58 percent reported using nicotine-containing products, which suggests products containing THC play a role in the outbreak,” she said.
But she said another 13% reported exclusive nicotine product consumption. It’s possible these patients have been exposed to a substance also in THC products, that they have lied about THC use or that they have lung injuries unrelated to vaping, she said.
“Additionally, it is possible that there may be multiple substances in multiple vapor products that cause lung injury,” said Maki. “Vitamin E acetate has been detected in the products of some but not all of the patients with severe lung injury. Its significance is currently unclear. Until we have more information, the CDC and Department of Health are cautioning people about the use of any vapor products.”
John Zambito, an emergency medicine physician at Astria Regional Medical Center in Yakima, said last month that his unit had had “almost a wow factor” of lung illnesses among young patients, which were likely linked to vaping.
Since then, there’s been a drop-off, which he attributes to the spread of information about the potential dangers of vaping.
“We actually have people who are coming in almost for a screening-type complaint or tests,” he said. “Because they’ve now heard of the dangers of vaping and want to be checked out … to make sure they’re not manifesting any of the signs of these dangerous side effects.”
Zambito said he hopes to see the ban stay in effect until specific substances causing the illnesses can be pinpointed.
“From a health care perspective, it’s the right move,” he said. “Unfortunately again for business owners, it’s a necessary one until we can gather more information about how exactly vaping is impacting health and obviously the dangers associated – or presumed dangers associated – with vaping.”
But business owners say customers will find a way to get juice regardless of the ban, such as through online sales or retail on Native land.
“If they’re going to ban this, they should do it everywhere,” said Sal Valencia, co-owner of Evergreen Vape and Glass in Yakima. “If you can still get ahold of something, what’s the point?”
Bertrand said the ban was “aimed at hurting shops.”
“There are so many workarounds and so many things that can be done. It’s just aimed at the shops,” she said.
Smith of the LCB said the state body was working to regulate both brick-and-mortar and online retailers, but acknowledged the challenge of enforcing the ban against online retailers out-of-state, for example. He added that the LCB was discussing how to address sales in sovereign nations.
Even without legal loopholes, Matthews of Smoke It’s Smoke Shop said juice will continue being sold.
“The black market is really building up and people are going to be making stuff at home and selling it on the internet,” he said. This simply opens up doors for more widespread sale of juice not regulated under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or LCB, he said.
Instead of subjecting customers to that, Matthews said he intends to sell safe ingredients to customer, if the law allows.
“We’re looking into other methods of being able to provide ingredients to people so they can at least buy the ingredients here and make their own vape juice … depending on the whole ban, to see what’s allowed,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure that at least our customers can take care of themselves.”