Pierce County health board votes to restrict use of e-cigarettes

As of January, it will be illegal for minors to possess electronic cigarette products, and vaping largely will be subject to restrictions imposed in the state’s decade-old ban on smoking in public places.

In a Wednesday meeting that included more than an hour of public testimony on the subject, the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health voted 5-0 to give Pierce County new restrictions on e-cigarette use in public places, including requiring vapor stores to buy permits to operate.

Director of Health Anthony L-T Chen said e-cigarette use is a growing public health concern, particularly among young people, and the sale of vaping products until now has been unregulated.

“One of the problems we’re seeing is this huge proliferation of e-cigarette retailers,” Chen said Thursday. “You can’t walk down the street without running into a sign advertising e-cigarettes or e-juice.”

Representatives of several Pierce County e-cigarette businesses did not return requests for comment Thursday.

Health officials estimate 580 businesses sell vaping products in Pierce County. That’s based on a guess that 80 percent of the county’s 674 holders of retail tobacco licenses also sell e-cigarette products and Web searches that indicate the county has about 40 dedicated sellers of e-cigarette products.

By comparison, health officials in King County, estimate there are 1,500 to 1,600 sellers, also off a guess that a large percentage of the 2,000 licensed tobacco retailers also deal in vaping. Vaping regulations passed there in 2010 do not include a licensing requirement for businesses

“Unfortunately, it’s growing in popularity,” said Scott Neal, the tobacco prevention program manager for Public Health-Seattle and King County, “and when I say unfortunately, I’m really talking talking about youth. That’s a real concern of ours. Early addiction really molds the brain in ways that are really not beneficial for folks in their teenage years.”

A bill backed by Gov. Jay Inslee to impose statewide regulations died in the Legislature’s 2015 session. Along with King County, Grant, Snohomish and Clark counties have instituted their own rules for the products.

In Pierce County, the Health Department’s vote also requires e-cigarette liquid to be sold in child-resistant packaging, a step King County has not taken.

The new rule will ban the use of vapor products in all public places and work sites, with the exception of limited sampling of products in retail shops.

Vaping shop licenses will cost $375 a year. The fee rises to $565 plus lab costs for shops that want to offer product sampling.

“One of the things that we have been concerned about is people basically hanging out in vape shops and vaping in there,” Chen said. “That is not something that we support.”

The new regulations and related materials from testimony on them are posted on the department’s website or at bit.ly/1MFnb8F.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally