PACIFIC COUNTY — New state data reveals a disturbing trend: It’s too easy for Washington teens — including those in Pacific County — to get tobacco.
In late February, the state Department of Health announced that during 2015, tobacco retailers illegally sold their products to teens at the highest rates since 1997. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board also saw a local jump in violations during the same period. And University of Washington health experts have found that new “e-cig” products are creating a whole new set of youth tobacco problems — including a spike in cases of nicotine poisonings among very young kids.
Though youth smoking rates have dropped by about half over the last decade, about 49,000 Washington youth still smoke, with an estimated 3,900 minors becoming daily smokers each year, according to DOH.
Health experts are especially concerned about minors’ access to tobacco, because nicotine is even more addicting for kids than it is for adults. About nine out of 10 smokers start smoking by age 18, and kids who get addicted to tobacco face a lifetime of health problems. An estimated 104,000 Washington youth who are alive today will die prematurely from a disease caused by smoking, according to DOH.
“It is unacceptable that more than one in six retailers are illegally selling tobacco to minors,” state Secretary of Health John Wiesman said in a February DOH press release.
The DOH and the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board, the agency that enforces tobacco laws, each collect data about youth access to tobacco products.
During random, unannounced yearly “compliance checks,” underage teens who are working with law enforcement officers attempt to buy tobacco products. LCB also does “premise checks,” where officers visit the stores to check for appropriate signage and other evidence of compliance with tobacco laws.
Clerks who sell tobacco to minors can be fined up to $100. Retail owners can be fined up to $1,500 and may lose their license for up to five years.
DOH found that in 2015, more than 17 percent of Washington tobacco retailers illegally sold to minors, up from 9.6 percent in 2014. In Pacific County, 16 percent of retailers illegally sold tobacco to minors, up from 4.2 percent in 2014.
According to the DOH press release, if the state rate exceeds 20 percent, the state could lose federal funding for drug, alcohol and tobacco prevention and treatment.
At the request of the Chinook Observer, LCB provided separate statistics for Pacific County that were also concerning. In 2014, LCB performed 40 local compliance checks, which just one resulted in a sale — a 97 percent compliance rate. They also performed 38 premise checks that year, and ultimately issued two violations for tobacco-related activities. In 2015, LCB did 32 compliance checks, and there were seven sales — a 78 percent compliance rate. The agency also did 38 premise checks. Despite making fewer attempts in 2015, LCB issued nine violations, and eight of them were sales to minors.
In 2014, the Healthy Youth Survey, a periodic study of health risks and behaviors among Washington teens, found that statewide, about eight percent of tenth graders had smoked a cigarette in the previous 30 days. In Pacific County, the rate was higher — about 13 percent. A smaller percentage of local teens said they smoked regularly or semi-regularly, but their rate was still about double the statewide rate.
Only about half of the Pacific County kids who took the 2014 Healthy Youth data answered questions about other types of tobacco products, so that data is somewhat less reliable than the cigarette data. But results suggested that local kids also use chewing tobacco, and cigars or cigarillos at higher-than-average rates.
Overall youth smoking rates have dropped by about half since 2002, according to DOH. But tobacco manufacturers are finding new ways to get their deadly products into the hands of youths, especially by developing and promoting e-cigarette products (commonly known as “vape pens” or “e-cigs”).
According to a 2015 white paper from the University of Washington, the number of U.S. youth who used e-cigs tripled between 2011 and 2013. In 2012, the Healthy Youth Survey included a question about e-cigs for the first time, and found that seven percent of the state’s youth had used them. By 2014, about 18 percent of Washington youth had used one in the last 30 days.
Local Healthy Youth data comes from a limited sample, but seems to suggest that overall, local kids try vaping at a somewhat lower-than average rate. However, those who do try it may be getting hooked — the rate of regular or semi-regular users was higher than average.
The products could be growing in popularity because they come in thousands of kid-friendly fruit or candy flavors, currently are not taxed, and are much cheaper than traditional cigarettes. They produce a little vapor, but little odor an no smoke, so they’re easier to use in places where traditional smoking is banned — and easier to hide from adults. The UW paper noted that there are also fewer restrictions on the advertising and sales of e-cigs, so kids have more exposure to them, and can easily obtain them from the Internet.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is so concerned about the products’ growing popularity among youth that in 2015, he made tightening regulations on such products one of his policy priorities. Citing well-established evidence that increases in taxation lead to decreases in smoking, Inslee has proposed a controversial 95 percent excise tax on tobacco vaping products. The measure would also ban minors from vaping, forbid the sale of flavored vaping products and ban Internet sales of vaping products.
Predictably, the state’s vapers and e-cig sellers hate the proposed measure, but health and youth experts love it.
“Without increasing the cost, youth prevention strategies will not work,” Inslee said in a March 17 policy brief.
E-cigs may be safer than cigarettes and chewing tobacco, but they’re definitely not safe. According to UW, the devices still contain nicotine — one of the most addictive substances on earth — as well as carcinogenic chemicals like formaldehyde, and traces of metals with harmful health effects, such as aluminum and chromium. Furthermore, there is still little information about the long-term effects of using e-cigs, and no conclusive evidence that they help people stop smoking. Some experts even argue that they may actually serve as a gateway to using traditional cigarettes.
Even worse, poor quality control and lax safety standards have led to a dramatic increase in the number of poisoning cases caused by refill cartridges. Across the country, the number of e-cig-related toxicity cases in kids under five increased by 500 percent between 2012 and 2014. During 2014, the Washington State Poison Control Center recorded 56 cases of children being poisoned by nicotine.
The research concluded that there was strong evidence that Washington policy-makers could protect youth by banning flavored products, imposing tougher marketing restriction and imposing a tax on the devices, saying, “The precautionary principle, paired with the devastating history of tobacco, justifies the regulation of e-cigarettes … After all, legislation can be amended, but loss of human life cannot.”