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Health Department passes e-cig rules, creating uncertain future for vape shops

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Tougher rules on the sale of e-cigarettes and the vapor-creating liquid used in them are set to kick in after the new year now that the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health unanimously approved new regulations at its Nov. 18 meeting.

The new rules largely hold vaping devices under the same rules as traditional cigarettes and other tobacco products. The new rules are meant to curb the rising number of teenagers using electronic vaping devices because of their nicotine content, as well as to protect the public from any ill effects of second-hand vapor exposure, although studies that have been done are sparse about the effects. The new rules go into effect Jan. 1.

E-cigarettes have grown in popularity in recent years as an alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes, largely because they produce what is essentially water vapor instead of smoke. The liquid used in these battery-powered devices contains various levels of nicotine for former smokers to step down as a way to wean themselves off nicotine altogether. The liquid also comes in a variety of flavors that range from everything from tobacco and soda flavors, to ones that taste like cereal or bubble gum, which health officials argue makes them attractive to children and teens.

The new rules make it illegal to use vapor products in all public places and worksites, aligning the e-cigarette rules with the state’s Smoking in Public Places law. While it has been illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to buy vape devices and products since 2011, the county-wide rules now also make it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to possess vapor products. The regulations will also require child resistant packaging for e-cigarette liquids sold in Pierce County as a way to safeguard against young children accidentally drinking the nicotine-laced juice.

Locally, one in five Pierce County 10th graders have tried these products – double the number who smokes cigarettes, according to a health department survey last year, raising questions about future health problems born from large numbers of teens becoming nicotine addicted so early in life.

“During the 10-year anniversary of our state’s Smoking in Public Places law, the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health has once again taken a leadership position to protect public health–especially our youth,” said Director of Health Anthony Chen in a statement following the vote.

Pierce County is the latest jurisdiction to tighten rules on vaping, alongside Clark, Grant, King and Snohomish counties, which have already outlawed e-cigarette use in public places. Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health adopted the matter after state lawmakers failed to act during the last legislative session despite months of debate. The Health Department conducted its own public process before adopting the new rules, including an online survey and public hearings that generated more than 700 pages of comments.

Some of the rules – child resistant bottles and age limits – make sense to Steampunk Vapory Lounge partner Rose Andersen, but others are over reaching and put her business and shops like hers in jeopardy.

The new rules, for example, only allow customers to sample vape flavors if certified ventilation systems have been installed. A system would cost between $6,000 and $10,000 if it were even possible to install since the shop is located in the downtown’s historic Bostwick building. The shop was started in May 2013 as a place for people to buy and use their e-cigarettes while they lounge and sip on wine, beer or soda, which are also available. The new rules don’t allow for tables or chairs or the sale of alcohol or non-vaping products. So the shop could either just sell vapor liquid and e-cigarette supplies without the ability for customers to sample flavors or trouble shoot device problems in the store, or the shop could stop selling vape supplies all together and just serve sodas and beers. Or it could just close.

“I don’t exactly know what the future holds for us, but it doesn’t look good,” Andersen said.