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State Lawmakers Hear Options For Limiting Vaping As Cases Of Illness, Deaths Grow

Ryan Finnerty
Farrington High School Senior Samantha Domingo testifies to state lawmakers about the effects of vaping in her school.

Although we are still months away from the 2020 Hawaii legislative session, lawmakers are already looking at ways to limit the use of electronic smoking devices.

E-cigarette manufacturer Juul announced it will stop selling flavored vaping products. The decision comes as federal authorities confirmed the number of deaths have risen to 33 and illnesses to 1,479 cases nationwide of an unknown lung illness tied to vaping and e-cigarettes.

The mystery illness now has a name: EVALI. It stands for for E-Cigarette and Vaping Associated Lung Injury. Although health experts have linked the condition to vaping, they still don’t know exactly which compound is the cause of the disease.

In a briefing for lawmakers on Thursday, Kapiolani Medical Center pediatrician Bryan Mih said that is due in part to the dozens of chemicals found in e-liquids.

“These are not natural or benign in any way. We have varying levels of nicotine, we have products that are carcinogenic. They’ve studied some of the vapor or aerosol and they found metals such as tin, nickel, and lead,” Mih told House and Senate Consumer Protection Committee members.

For the most part, there haven’t been many studies that examine what effects those chemicals have on humans, specifically when inhaled in aerosol form. Mih told the lawmakers that some e-liquid formulas have been examined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but only for ingestion, not inhalation.

As EVALI cases around the country have grown, states governments have moved to ban or restrict vaping products in recent weeks, although some of the prohibitions have been blocked in court.

But there is one proven way for lawmakers to reduce vaping use that is firmly within their legal powers: taxation.

Frank Chaloupka is an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago specializing in tobacco research. He told lawmakers, when it comes to traditional tobacco products, minors are three times more sensitive to price increases than adults.

“When you significantly increase tobacco tax, that's going to be the single most effective way for reducing tobacco use,” he said.

That’s especially significant for Hawaii, which has the second highest rate of youth vaping in the nation. Twenty-five percent of high school students report regular use of an electronic smoking device. The legal age for using an electronic smoking device in Hawaii is 21 years old.

Chaloupka began studying tobacco use in youth during the 1990s and says extending the tobacco tax to e-cigarettes will reduce their popularity. He also pointed out that the current exemption of vapes and e-cigs makes them more price-competitive to traditional tobacco products, which are taxed.

Maui state Sen. Rosalyn Baker, chair of the Senate Committee on Consumer Protection, was one of the lawmakers who received the briefing. She would like to see action before the next legislative session begins in January.

“Hopefully the governor's team can take some initial actions and we can follow through with something more permanent when the Legislature convenes,” Baker said after the hearing.

For now, the state health department has issued an advisory urging Hawaii residents to stop vaping, but has stopped short of an outright ban.

A spokesperson for the Gov. David Ige told HPR that the governor would “consider taking executive action to ban or restrict vaping products if and when the Department of Health specifically links a vaping product or ingredient as the cause of lung illnesses or injuries seen in Hawaii.”

Electronic smoking retailers and manufacturers have broadly pushed back against health experts' warnings that their products are unsafe, while maintaining that they do not target underage users.

In a written statement, Hawaii’s largest vape company, Volcano E-Cigs, said the lung illness stems from the use of black market vape cartridges and that a ban on flavored products would be “irrelevant” to the outbreak.

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