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New Products Complicate Enforcement Of State Smoking Ban

Gerry Broome
AP Photo

Nearly a decade has passed since Washington state banned smoking in public areas and workplaces. 

But smoking has evolved since, and that leaves health officials with challenges as they try to enforce a law that didn’t foresee the rise of new products.

The ban on smoking that took effect in 2005 was pretty straightforward at the time. It covered cigarettes and cigars — the traditional stuff. But with the landscape changing, health officials tasked with enforcing the ban are doing their best to keep pace. 

“Now we’re contending with hookahs, e-cigarettes and soon-to-be [legal] marijuana, so it definitely looks different,” said Keri Moore with the Snohomish County Health District.

Electronic cigarettes aren’t banned in Snohomish County. In King County, e-cigarettes have been banned for three years. Moore says one of the reasons Snohomish hasn’t followed suit is e-cigarettes are new enough that there isn’t enough data on health and safety impacts.

Staff and funding to enforce the smoking ban has steadily diminished, too, especially in the smaller counties. Besides, Moore says, last year, the county spent considerable resources embroiled in a battle involving another of those emerging smoking trends.

“We took a hookah lounge to court, and so that used a lot of time and energy, and financial resources to conduct that enforcement action. So that was really our priority,” said Moore.

The judge ruled in favor of Snohomish County and shut down the hookah lounge.  Recreational marijuana is shaping up to be the next possible showdown for public health. But the county says a lesson learned from the hookah lounge case is that it needs to work with permitting agencies to ensure businesses that would violate the smoking ban don’t open in the first place.

Moore is also concerned with prevention. While the state healthy youth survey shows tobacco use in 10th grade kids is down 25 percent from 1999, “rates of use of hookah and marijuana are actually the same or even higher than their usages of traditional cigarettes,” she said.

“E-cigarettes is less right now, but there is some concern that it’s kind of the hot new thing. And then also with marijuana now being legal for adults, there is concern that that will normalize it also for youth, and we’ll see those rates go up even more,” Moore said.

Today, Moore will meet with officials from three other counties to compare notes about enforcement issues given the new array of options. And while the smaller counties are hardest hit in terms of funding, there are questions all over the state about how to regulate the next generation of smoking.