WA businesses speak out against proposal to ban menthol cigarettes, curb vaping

Feb 2, 2021, 4:30 PM | Updated: 5:49 pm
Vaping continues to cause problems in Washington State. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

It’s about our youth. It’s about our health. It’s about racial equity. Those issues are why Washington state Rep. Gerry Pollet says his proposal to impose stringent limits on vaping products needs to become law.

The ‘most important thing’ in Washington’s bid to curb vaping

“Thirty percent of high school seniors in our state were vaping,” Pollet explained during a House committee hearing Tuesday, referencing research from 2020. “And the evidence is overwhelming as to what attracted them to vaping: It is flavors. Very clear evidence, it’s very strong evidence.”

HB 1345 — sponsored by Rep. Pollet —  bans flavored vapor products, limits the allowable amount of nicotine in them, bans menthol cigarettes, and in its original form, comes with significant fees, taxes, and enforcement, as well as a repeal of state preemption law.

“The State Board of Health’s formal review of all the literature published in peer reviewed journals and other studies in regard to benefits of a flavor ban for vape products, which concluded that there was very strong evidence that having a ban on flavors would dramatically decrease youth initiation of vaping,” Pollet told the committee.

But Pollet says it’s about more than the health of the state’s youth.

“It’s attacking the racial inequity of the marketing of menthol to the African-American community for decades with a ban on menthol tobacco,” Pollet explained.

“It is long past time that we acted on what is the racial addiction to nicotine marketed by the largest tobacco companies,” he continued. “The evidence is overwhelming on how menthol was used to attract an addict. Menthol is basically a nicotine enhancer into the lungs and I speak to you not only as prime sponsor today, but as a faculty member at the UW School of Public Health who has studied the toxicology and the neurological effects, and the pulmonary effects of vaping products and menthol, [and how it] enhances and increases the uptake of nicotine. It is a drug and it makes it easier for people to initiate and start smoking.”

Many who spoke at the hearing agreed on the importance of banning the products for adults, and cracking down on selling to those under 21.

“Some people might think that quarantine has made it harder for teens to use these products, but it has actually gotten easier,” said Julian, a teen, and an anti-smoking and vaping ambassador who testified before the committee. “High schoolers are now alone in front of their computer screens most of the day, and too many of them are vaping now more than ever, and are addicted. The biggest reason for teens that are using is the flavors. I believe without these candy and minty flavors, young people would not be so interested in trying to use them — they would just have no appeal.”

“Vaping products and cigarettes with menthol increase the chances of our youth getting cancer,” a woman told the committee, noting that low-income kids and those of color are hit disproportionately hard by not just menthol cigarettes and flavored vape products, but also COVID-19 making it even more of a threat.

One pediatrician explained the difficulty she had using nicotine replacements with teens early on, but stressed the current situation with the pandemic allows for virtual visits. Some lawmakers on the panel wondered if the vaping by teens during the pandemic could be the result of kids self-medicating during the pandemic.

Vape store struggling with sales and layoffs due to WA flavored vaping ban

Beyond the strict limits and enforcement in this bill are the fees and taxes.

It also creates a pair of $250 licensing fees for sellers and manufacturers, along with a four-cent surcharge on the business owner, and 45-cent excise tax that the buyer has to pay.

It’s a business killer according to already struggling vape shop owners and other retail businesses.

“Banning flavored vaping products will not have the desired result,” one shop owner testified, noting how customers will likely just drive across the Columbia River to get their product.

Others pointed to evidence that cracking down on the products only leads to increased black market activity, and unregulated supplies for teens to get their hands on.

“It hurts people and it does not reduce demand,” noted a man who owns five vape shops.

Then there’s the economic impact not just to the store owner.

“I have 27 employees that I will be laying off,” said one owner.

Another woman who owns a small grocery store repeated much of what other small business owners had to say, adding that she believes it “goes too far.”

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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WA businesses speak out against proposal to ban menthol cigarettes, curb vaping