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E-cigs could be banned in all bars, restaurants in Whatcom County

Customer Chris Lowe of Bellingham, left, talks to Master of Vapours owner Austin Masters at the downtown Bellingham electronic cigarette store Monday, May 16, 2016. Whatcom County is considering banning electronic cigarettes in bars and other public spaces.
Customer Chris Lowe of Bellingham, left, talks to Master of Vapours owner Austin Masters at the downtown Bellingham electronic cigarette store Monday, May 16, 2016. Whatcom County is considering banning electronic cigarettes in bars and other public spaces. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Using electronic cigarettes in places like bars and restaurants soon could be banned throughout Whatcom County.

The restriction would put the use of e-cigarettes in the same category as traditional cigarettes, which can’t be smoked in public places including workplaces, bars, restaurants, non-tribal casinos and bowling alleys.

If approved, the measure would expand the Smoking in Public Places law to include vaping. That means vaping within 25 feet of the doors and windows of public places or businesses also would be prohibited.

E-cigarettes are battery-operated metal or plastic tubes that have a cartridge filled with liquid containing nicotine, flavoring, solvents and other chemicals that are heated until the liquid turns into a vapor, which is then inhaled.

A measure, which must still be written, will go before the Whatcom County Health Board in the coming months. If approved, the ban would apply to all jurisdictions in Whatcom County, including its cities.

Before it gets there, the Whatcom County Health Department has organized what it’s calling a “listening session” on Thursday, May 19, to talk to people and get their opinion on the proposal and what they’d like to see.

Max Valentine, manager of Master of Vapours in Bellingham, opposes a ban.

“For the most part, there are places that do allow it and others that don’t. That’s usually respected among vapers themselves,” Valentine said. “If a business wants to allow it, they should be able to because it’s not the same as smoking. I don’t think they should classified as the same thing, smoking and vaping.”

Bellingham resident Nathan Zukowski, who turned to e-cigarettes a couple of years ago to quit smoking, echoed those views.

“It should be up to the business if they want to allow vaping. It not like smoking, where the secondhand smoke bothers a lot of people, it’s odorless,” Zukowski said, before adding that some of the candy- and fruit-flavored e-cigarettes do have a slight odor.

If approved, the county measure would be the latest in rules for the e-cigarette industry, which had been largely unregulated until recently.

In November, Bellingham banned smoking and vaping in any city park, trail or open space over concerns about the impact of secondhand smoke.

A new state law signed in April by Gov. Jay Inslee will ban the use of vapor products in schools, day-care centers, elevators and school buses. It also will increase state enforcement to prevent sales to minors as well as require child-proof packaging and disclosure of how much nicotine is in liquid nicotine bottles.

What’s more, it gives local health boards the power to further restrict vaping indoors, which is what Whatcom County is proposing.

Definitely, our youth use has dramatically increased.

Amy Hockenberry, prevention coordinator for the Whatcom County Health Department

The new state law, most of which begins June 28, still would allow e-cigarette retailers to let customers sample in licensed stores. The county’s ban, should it be enacted, wouldn’t affect this provision.

Earlier in May, the federal Food and Drug Administration announced it will, for the first time, require review of e-cigarettes and their ingredients.

The new rules are being put into place because public health officials are concerned about the sharp increase in youth use of e-cigarettes nationally, statewide and locally. They’re also worried that e-cigarettes, also called vape pens, are being used to smoke other drugs, including marijuana. (While recreational marijuana is legal in Washington state, it isn’t for minors nor can pot be used in public.)

At the county level, vaping among Whatcom teens is double that of smoking, even though e-cigarettes can’t be sold to those younger than 18 in Washington state.

Countywide, more than 9 percent of eighth-graders, nearly 19 percent of 10th-graders and 26 percent of 12th-graders who were surveyed said they have used e-cigs, according to the Washington State Healthy Youth Survey.

“Definitely, our youth use has dramatically increased,” said Amy Hockenberry, prevention coordinator for the Whatcom County Health Department.

She said she’s talked to youths who believe vaping is harmless to their health. While vaping could be less harmful than smoking cigarettes, she said, it still is harmful to the developing brain.

Bellingham schools officials said they’re noticing a surge as well.

“Anecdotally, we have seen an increase in student use of e-cigarettes and/or vape pens both on and off campus,” said Jessica Sankey, wellness director for the Bellingham School District.

“This is an unexplored area of student health that needs attention, and we are looking forward to working with the health department and other partners to help educate students, families and staff on the associated risks,” Sankey said.

In addition to hearing from school officials, Hockenberry said the health department also was contacted by bar owners who worried that e-cigarettes were being used to smoke drugs, specifically marijuana but also meth and heroin, in their bars. Plus, they said, how do they tell customers who want to smoke cigarettes that they can’t light up but allow others to vape?

They wanted an across-the-board rule, Hockenberry said.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

E-cigarette meeting

What: The Whatcom County Health Department wants to hear from the public about a proposal to restrict the use of electronic cigarettes in most places indoors by expanding the Smoking in Public Places law to include vaping.

When: 3:30 to 5 p.m. Thursday, May 19.

Where: Civic Center Building, 322 N. Commercial St. in Bellingham. Go to the Garden Level Conference Room.

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