Flavored vape products are banned in Oregon for six months as of Oct. 15. (Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons)

If Oregon's ban on flavored tobacco vaping cartridges resumes, it will largely be up to county governments to ensure they are taken off shelves.

But there’s a problem: many say they can’t.

At least a dozen counties, whose territories hold a quarter of Oregon’s tobacco retailers, recently told the Oregon Health Authority they can’t or won’t help the state agency enforce the six-month-long ban.

State officials say they’ll make do by with their own staff and ask other counties to pick up the slack.

Marion and Polk counties earlier this week told the state agency they can’t help, in response to a survey the state agency sent around the state. Officials from the counties say they don’t have the manpower.

“It just doesn’t work. We can’t hire people,” said Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope. “This essentially becomes a code enforcement person that’s supposed to do education and citation and follow-up — secret shoppers, stings, things like that. There’s just not enough in the (funding) formula to come close to justify participating in that.”

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Health officials from the counties of Baker, Columbia, Gilliam, Harney, Jackson, Jefferson, Klamath, Sherman, Umatilla, Wasco and Yamhill all told the state agency the same.

Between them, those counties have more than 1,000 of the state’s 4,000 tobacco retailers, according to data provided by the health authority.

Oregon on Oct. 15 banned flavored vaping products, but that has been blocked by the Oregon Court of Appeals on Thursday. The court seeks a review of Gov. Kate Brown's orders.

The state's push stems from a recent outbreak of acute respiratory illnesses around the country linked to e-cigarette use — also known as vaping. As of last week, more than 1,300 cases had been reported with 26 deaths, including two in Oregon.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, most people affected by the outbreak have a history of using vaping products with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Oregon's ban specifically targets flavored vaping products. The health authority is tasked with ensuring tobacco retailers only sell tobacco-flavored tobacco products, while the Oregon Liquor Control Commission will regulate marijuana retailers to ensure only marijuana-flavored products are sold.

To enforce the ban on tobacco retailers, the Oregon Health Authority hopes to, among other things, send staff into stores around the state and ensure the cartridges aren't sold.

Stores that don’t pull the products, if the ban resumes, could be fined $500 per day.

Marion County has one tobacco specialist and can’t assign that person more work without hurting other programs, officials told Salem Reporter.

“It’s definitely a resource issue,” said spokeswoman Jolene Kelly. “Although we’re certainly committed to the health of our residents and we’ll be doing community education around the harmful effects of vaping and investigating cases that are reported.”

Officials from the Oregon Health Authority said they’ll be able to cover the patchwork of counties, and lean on some counties to enforce neighbors who say they can’t pick up enforcement.

For example, Hood River County “indicated they would be able to cover Columbia and Tillamook counties,” said Jonathan Modie, a health authority spokesman, and Clatsop could cover Columbia and Tillamook counties.

Modie said the health authority will also send staff and “similar resources” to those counties to ensure the ban’s being enforced.

“We are confident that we will have enforcement coverage for all 36 counties in Oregon to ensure tobacco and vaping retailers are compliant with the new rules,” he said.

When asked how many staffers would help the agency enforce the rules, Modie said the agency and the state Department of Revenue and "other state agencies" are "identifying staff who, in addition to their regular duties, will conduct education and enforcement activities."

A short-handed staff won’t deter officials in Douglas County, however. The county’s public health officer, Bob Dannenhoffer, said the issue is too great even if it demands more staff time.

“To have this many deaths and this many severe illnesses is very, very worrisome,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of resources either but our public health team met this week and decided that this vaping thing was important enough that, even if we have to work nights or weekends, we’re going to get it done.”

On the survey to the health authority, Douglas County health officials also said they would help neighboring counties, too. Two neighbors who declined to help the state, Jackson and Klamath, have more than 300 retailers combined.

“We think it’s going to be a lot of work, but you know public health is like that,” Dannenhoffer said. “If we can just save one young person’s life, or one young person’s lungs, it’s going to be worth it.”

At least one of Polk County’s estimated 49 tobacco retailers said it planned to comply with the ban.

“Some of my distributors have offered to buy my product back,” said Brannon Whitus, owner of Square One Smoke Shop in Dallas. “As of right now I haven’t sent any of it back yet.”

If the ban resumes, Whitus said he's not going to break the law even if the county can't enforce it on its own. He's said he's "holding on and hoping I can make it through."

“Whether it’s a month or six months down the road, we hope we can be able to sell this product again,” he said.

Reporter Saphara Harrell contributed to this report.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, troy@salemreporter.com or @TroyWB.

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