TACOMA — State health officials say too many children in Washington are being poisoned by contact with the liquid nicotine used in electronic cigarettes.
Now, the state’s poison center wants the Legislature to adopt standards for making liquid nicotine packages child-resistant, as well as subject to consistent labeling rules.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that vaporize liquid nicotine to recreate the sensation of smoking a cigarette. They have exploded in popularity in recent years as an alternative for smokers trying to kick the tobacco habit.
The Washington Poison Center received no emergency calls reporting poisonings from e-cigarettes before 2010. In 2014, the agency has already received 154 calls reporting poisonings from e-cigarette exposure, more than two-thirds of which involved children.
Alexander Garrard, clinical managing director of the poison center, said that because calls to the poison center are made voluntarily, the agency’s statistics probably reflect only a fraction of the true number of exposures in the state.
He said that the problem with e-cigarette exposure in children doesn’t often come from kids’ puffing on them.
More commonly, Garrard said, children are getting into the bottles of concentrated liquid nicotine that are used to refill e-cigarettes. Children may drink directly from the small bottles, or ingest the liquid after playing with it on their skin and touching their hands to their mouth and face, he said.
Many nicotine liquids come in candy or fruit flavors and are marketed using colorful labels, which Garrard said can make the products especially attractive to young children.
Ingesting even a mouthful of the liquid nicotine is highly toxic for children, and can cause vomiting, nausea, seizures and in extreme cases death, Garrard said. Fifty-six cases of nicotine poisoning reported to the poison center in 2014 required hospital treatment, according to the agency.
“There’s just a lack of regulation on these particular products to ensure safety for kids,” Garrard said. “It’s just going to be a matter of time before we have a child that has a more serious outcome than nausea, vomiting and an overnight stay in the hospital.”
Garrard told a Senate health care committee last week that he’d like to see clearer and more consistent warning labels on liquid nicotine containers, as well as packaging that makes them more difficult for children to open. Most of the child nicotine exposures reported to the poison center this year involved children between ages 1 and 3, he said.
At least some manufacturers and sellers of the products are supportive of additional regulations.
Kyle Chapman, a manager at Mt. Baker Vapor in Bellingham, said his company is “100 percent” in favor of standardized warning labels. He said the company already outfits its liquid nicotine products with child-resistant caps, and supports regulations that would require other manufacturers to do the same.
“This product is intended for adults, and should be packaged as such,” Chapman said.
Marc Jarrett, a co-founder of Banzai Vapors in Lakewood, said he, too, supports additional safety regulations for liquid nicotine packaging, as long as they aren’t excessive. But he said it is also important for parents to be informed about the products they are purchasing.
“I think it is a responsibility of the manufacturers to educate the public and educate parents, but I also think there should be some personal responsibility on behalf of the parents,” Jarrett said. “Reasonable regulation is really what we’re trying to see here, and not to demonize something that has helped so many people in our community not smoke anymore.”
State Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said that he expects there will be legislation introduced next year that aims to regulate packages of liquid nicotine. The Legislature reconvenes for a 105-day session starting in January.
The call to regulate liquid nicotine comes at a time when the e-cigarette industry is facing more rules overall. Three years after it said it would regulate e-cigarettes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced this year that it would require warning labels and ban free samples, vending machine sales and sales to minors, among other rules.
Washington started prohibiting sales of e-cigarettes to minors in 2013.