Responding to the recent spike in vaping-related lung diseases, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared a public health emergency on Sept. 24, banning the sale of electronic cigarettes and vaping products. The ban will last through Jan. 25, 2020.
The declaration comes on the heels of a spate of mysterious vaping-related illnesses popping up across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked the use of e-cigarettes to more than 800 cases of lung disease in 46 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands over the past five months, a dozen of which have ended in death.
In addition to the public health emergency, Baker also called for a temporary four-month statewide ban on the sale of flavored and non-flavored vaping products in both retail and online stores. The Commonwealth’s Public Health Council imposed the ban the same day. The restrictions apply to all vaping products and devices, including tobacco and marijuana.
Baker said that the temporary ban, which has brought Massachusetts beyond where any state has gone to address the growth of vaping related-illnesses, would allow public health officials enough time to get a grip on the situation.
“We as a Commonwealth need to pause sales in order for our medical experts to collect more information about what is driving these life-threatening, vaping-related illnesses,” Baker said at a press conference last Tuesday.
However, to small business owners and public health officials alike, the move came as a surprise. According to Azad Bhi, the owner of Tufts Convenience on Boston Avenue, Baker’s decision left him scrambling to purge his shelves of any e-cigarette and vaping products.
“It happened overnight,” Bhi said. “We weren’t given any notice whatsoever.”
In addition to his rush to adhere to the ban, Bhi said that he was not made aware of how it would be enforced and what penalties he would face if he did not comply with it.
According to WBUR, municipal boards of health are responsible for enacting the ban and ensuring retailers’ compliance; citations can result in fines up to $1,000 for every item sold.
Bhi also said that businesses should have been given more time to prepare for the ban.
“Just because the ban was immediate doesn’t mean the products just disappear,” Bhi said. “Now I’m sitting on a bunch of inventory that currently counts as a loss, which wouldn’t be the case if we knew this thing was coming.”
Beyond Vape, a store in Davis Square that exclusively sells e-cigarettes and vaping products, is similarly reconciling with the implications of the ban for its business.
Employees at Beyond Vape referred the Daily to its corporate office for an official comment, which did not respond by press time.
Other businesses in the state have also expressed concerns about what the ban means for their bottom lines. According to NPR, a vape store owner filed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Department of Public Health calling on the state to end the ban.
Ian Wong, director of the Tufts Department of Health Promotion and Prevention and chairman of the Natick Board of Health, said that he and other medical experts were also caught off guard by Baker’s ban.
In his role as chair of the Natick Board of Health, Wong is responsible for making sure that local businesses comply with the ban. Yet he too was offered little direction on how to accomplish that.
“After seeing the ban in the news, I called the director of the Natick Health Department to ask him what’s up and what’s the guidance on this,” Wong said. “He said that there is no guidance — just that we have to get these products off the shelves.”
While Wong praised Baker’s decision as an opportunity for medical experts to collect more information about what is driving these life-threatening, vaping-related illnesses, he worried that the unequivocal ban on all e-cigarette and vaping products could cause users — especially students — to experience nicotine withdrawals that ultimately lead to even worse health outcomes.
“Right now, our concern is that if users can’t get their hands on these products, then they’re going to turn to either combustible cigarettes or to the black market to get their nicotine fix, two things we really don’t want students to do,” Wong said.
To this end, Wong framed the ban as an opportunity for students to stop smoking entirely. He encouraged students to visit the Department of Health Promotion and Prevention within the Tufts health services building for cessation resources, including nicotine patches and training sessions, among other forms of support.
“If you’re thinking about quitting, what a great time to stop,” Wong said. “And we’re here to help and give you support.”
Other public officials also expressed their concerns about the possibility that the ban could worsen health outcomes and force consumers into a black market, especially for purchasing cannabis products. Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title condemned the decision entirely.
“This is a terrible decision,” Title said on Twitter. “Purposely pushing people into the illicit market — precisely where the dangerous products are — goes against every principle of public health and harm reduction. It is dangerous, short-sighted, and undermines the benefits of legal regulation.”
The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) recommended that consumers buy cannabis products from licensed stores. In wake of the ban, the CCC also advised medical marijuana users who vaporize THC to find an alternative or contact their doctor.
Twelve days before Baker issued his ban, the CCC voted to require that all marijuana and vaporizer products sold in Massachusetts report more detail on the chemicals and ingredients inside.
Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan of the CCC noted that while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not specify whether THC, nicotine or the act of vaping itself can be tied to the recent spike in vaping-related illnesses or death, she is not shocked by the increase in illnesses.
“The industry has said this was safer than smoking, [but] no one ever said that this was safe. So I’m not sure why people are really shocked at the fact that we are now seeing individuals becoming sick, [and that] some people have died from a substance that really has no research to it,” she said.
A spokesperson for New England Treatment Access (NETA), a cannabis dispensary that sold products affected by the ban in Northampton and Brookline, told the Daily in an email that they are finding ways to ensure their patients and consumers have access to safe products while protecting them from the contaminated ones most commonly found on the illicit market.
“We are complying with the Governor’s order, and we understand his concern for public safety. We believe this issue underscores the importance of a legal and licensed cannabis market, where products must pass rigorous testing procedures to help ensure safety and consistency,” Amanda Rositano, president of NETA, said in a statement. “As a result of this decision, our teams will work with patients and customers who use vaping products as their preferred options to find the best alternative products to meet their needs during the review period.”
For Dustin Yoon, a junior who smoked regular cigarettes before switching to Juul, e-cigarettes represent a healthier substitute to the combustible product. With the ban, he worries about that supposedly healthier option disappearing.
“For people who used to smoke like me, who then switched over to [e-cigarettes] because they’re supposedly healthier, I feel like that choice is being taken away,” Yoon said. “Now that I can’t buy them, I’m kind of worried that I might go back to cigarettes.”
Rebecca Barker and Elie Levine contributed reporting to this article.