Local enforcement of the state’s emergency, 120-day ban on the sale of flavored vaping products has fallen to the Lincoln County Health Department.
State officials, led by Gov. Steve Bullock, sought to impose the measure in early October after a wave of illnesses — and several deaths — linked to vaping spread across the nation. Bullock and others argued the flavor ban would give the Centers for Disease Control time to study the health risks.
Officials also expressed concerns flavored e-cigarette products were contributing to nicotine addiction among Montana’s minors.
But vaping shop owners fought the ban in court, resulting in a temporary restraining order on the measure. That expired Oct. 28 and a judge later ruled against the injunction requested by vaping retailers.
“We have refused to stand idly by while a powerful industry hooks a new generation of users and puts them right in the path of the national outbreak of lung injury and death,” said Sheila Hogan, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, in a statement. “This has always been about protecting our most vulnerable and we are pleased that the court chose to stand with Montanans and their health by allowing the emergency rules to go forward.”
The statewide emergency ban went into effect Dec. 18.
For Toya Laveway, the county’s tobacco prevention specialist, that means checking in on the jurisdiction’s roughly 40 licensed retailers, which includes stores that sell tobacco as well as specialty vaping shops.
“We just need to go in there and check to see if they are selling, and just make sure they’re aware of the emergency rule and they’re following it,” Laveway said.
Already, Laveway has noticed many shops do not have up-to-date mailing addresses on file with the state. In several cases, notices about the ban sent out by Helena were returned as undeliverable, she said.
Laveway anticipates that distance will prove the most challenging aspect for county health officials. Enforcement means keeping tabs on shops in Libby and Troy, and then up in the Yaak, Trego and Eureka, she said.
While Laveway believes retailers will abide by the state ban, violations will be passed along to the county attorney’s office. Local health officials will not be imitating U.S. Treasury Agents during the Prohibition Era, she said.
“If we find that people are not following through with pulling all of those products, if they still choose to sell the products, then we would have to put that in as a claim and report that to the county attorney,” Laveway said. “ It falls into enforcement of a public health law.”
At least one vaping store chain has declared it will continue to allow customers to buy flavored products, albeit in a roundabout manner. Hamilton-based Freedom Vapes will sell “do-it-yourself” kits for consumers interested in making their own flavored products, according to Montana Public Radio.
Freedom Vapes also was involved in the legal challenge to the ban, Montana Public Radio reported.
But Laveway believes most, if not all, retailers will cooperate.
“Nobody wants to do anything on purpose to harm the kids of the state or the county,” she said. “The one death that we have had was a 19-year-old kid, who died from the effects of lung disease and vaping, so the question is how we can keep the kids safe?”
As of Dec. 17, at least 2,506 people have been hospitalized because of vaping-related illnesses across all 50 states and the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the CDC. In that same time period, the CDC reports 54 confirmed deaths in 27 states and the District of Columbia.
The lung illnesses may stem from vitamin E acetate, according to the CDC. The additive is linked to THC-containing vaping products, officials said.
States from New England to the West Coast banned the sale of vaping products after a spike in the illnesses over the summer. A few of the prohibitions, like in Massachusetts, have been lifted in the months since the surge in cases. But new laws there limit what products vape shops can sell.
And in Washington, D.C., the White House is reportedly again weighing a national flavored vaping product ban.
Laveway said the largest problem she has faced is a lack of education. Many vape customers view the habit as harmless, she said.
“A lot of people just think that’s it’s just flavored air,” she said.