WSLCB - Executive Management Team
(September 11, 2019) - Summary

The scope of the vaping crisis continued to expand, including a possible case in Washington state and increased likelihood of federal and state action against flavored vapor products considered appealing to children.

Here are some observations from the Wednesday September 11th Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) Executive Management Team public meeting.

My top 3 takeaways:

  • Agency leadership discussed the announcement by public health officials that a person in King County may have been the first case of a vaping-related lung illness in Washington (audio – 2m).
    • Board members discussed the emergent issue during the previous day’s Board Caucus after initial conversation at the September 4th Executive Management Team (EMT) meeting. Correlated health impacts attributed to vaping came into focus following the September 30th announcement of an investigation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC was “working closely” with the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which advised “Consumers can Help Protect Themselves by Avoiding Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-Containing Vaping Products.”
    • On Wednesday September 11th, Public Health – Seattle & King County held a press conference to announce the first case of vaping-related lung illness in Washington, identified through review of past hospital records.
      • Public Health – King County & Seattle Health Officer Jeffrey Duchin said a “teenager” from King County had been sent to an intensive care unit in early August with symptoms of “fever, cough and shortness of breath.” The young man had been discharged by doctors and was recovering.
      • According to a September 11th blog post from the county health agency, “We know this teenager reported vaping nicotine with propylene glycol as well as saffron, but our investigation is ongoing and we do not know details about the type of vaping device, where the products were obtained or if other substances were also used.”
      • Duchin warned, “E-cigarettes and vaping are not safe. Everyone should be aware of the risk for severe lung disease and avoid using e-cigarettes and vaping at this time until the cause of this outbreak is known.”
      • The identity and age of the subject of the possible case were protected, although the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) created a “Severe Lung Illness” informational screen which tallied the subject’s age as between “10-20 years old.” With the passage of HB 1074 this past legislative session, the minimum age to purchase tobacco or vaping products in Washington was raised from 18 to 21 effective in 2020.
    • Other key developments in this expanding public health crisis:
      • Washington State Governor Jay Inslee reacted to the announcement on Twitter, saying the DOH was “moving ahead with my request last week to look at policy options including a ban on flavors.”
      • On Monday September 9th, the FDA sent a warning letter to leading national e-cigarette brand JUUL stating the agency had “determined that JUUL adulterated its products under section 902(8) of the [Food, Drug, and Cosmetics] (FD&C) Act (21 U.S.C. § 387b(8)) by selling or distributing them as modified risk tobacco products without an FDA order in effect that permits such sale or distribution.” The agency asked the company to formally respond to allegations of unfounded health claims and marketing to youth.
      • On Wednesday September 11th, the Trump administration and FDA announced their intention to finalize a compliance policy that would “[clear] the market of unauthorized, non-tobacco-flavored e-cigarette products” by implementing “the agency’s enforcement of the premarket authorization requirements” within “the coming weeks.”
    • WSLCB Director of Communications Brian Smith confirmed that talks “at a very high level” continued between DOH, WSLCB, and the Governor’s office all of whom were in “fact finding mode.” Board Member Russ Hauge asked about rumors of “a discussion of banning additives in e-cigarettes” and wanted to know what the agency’s responsibility would be. Smith indicated that was “some of the stuff we’re trying to figure out.”
    • Because there could be federal action, Enforcement Chief Justin Nordhorn mentioned “my team that contracts with FDA would be starting to look at that across the state because it would be built in as a supplemental to our contract for our FDA inspectors.” Action by Washington State would likely be directed by DOH, with WSLCB acting as an enforcement arm and “waiting to hear what they’re doing.” These responsibilities could be “bifurcated,” he speculated, with the Enforcement division “looking at those two things separately.”
  • The new Enforcement Deputy Chief of Administration was welcomed to the agency (audio – 1m).
    • Nordhorn introduced Ron Rupke to agency leadership, the newly-hired Deputy Chief of Administration for the Enforcement division. Nordhorn said Rupke would “do a lot of the stuff with the hearings, any personnel complaints, all those things as well as projects, policy work” in addition to “supervising budget issues” and supporting Nordhorn “legislatively.”
    • Rupke’s prior roles included 25 years with the Washington State Patrol (WSP) and two years as a Chief Investigator at DOH.
    • A second Deputy Chief role was created as part of the agency’s Enforcement reorganization efforts which Nordhorn briefed on at both the August 7th EMT and August 28th EMT (audio – 10m).
  • Board Member Ollie Garrett asked if WSLCB Enforcement led an operation to dismantle an unregulated cannabis grow in eastern Washington (audio – 1m).
    • Garret reported hearing about a “major marijuana bust” in Pasco and asked about the agency’s involvement. Nordhorn said he wasn’t aware of agency involvement while acknowledging Enforcement officers “may have assisted in some form or fashion.”
      • The operation occurred in northern Franklin County, according to a Facebook post from the county sheriffs. Deputies removed 25,000 cannabis plants over two days with the assistance of a Washington State Patrol cannabis “eradication team.” The post thanked anonymous community members “for their help in bringing it to our attention and allowing us to use equipment for the ease of eradication.”
      • Franklin County has had some form of moratorium or ban in place against cannabis production, processing, and retailing since shortly after the passage of Initiative 502.