Editorial: Massachusetts should rethink misguided vape ban

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker initiated a four-month ban on all vaping products on Sept. 24, which was hailed by some as a swift response to an emerging public health crisis and decried by others as reactionary and damaging to small businesses in the state. Yesterday, the Massachusetts State House took this ban a step further, passing legislation in favor of a permanent ban on all flavored vaping products and a 75% excise tax on all other vaporized nicotine products. The four-month ban itself has been ineffective: Massachusetts residents surged to Rhode Island and New Hampshire to purchase nicotine and marijuana vaping products in the period following the announcement. This new, extended ban is equally misguided. By exposing Massachusetts residents, including Tufts students, to black-market vaping products and by harming local businesses, Baker and the State House do Massachusetts no favors when they ban products readily available just across the borders of our small state.

In the past several months, vape users across Massachusetts and at Tufts have found ways around the emergency ban. Massachusetts is the first state to enact a total ban on vaping products and stands alone regionally, with neighbors Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont and New York completely open to vape sales or regulating them less stringently. There have been three vaping-related deaths in Massachusetts, 21 other confirmed cases and 47 probable cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We understand the Commonwealth’s concern and good intentions in responding to this crisis, but these types of bans and regulations do little to address the underlying problem of nicotine addiction, especially when there is no institutional support for vape users and no regional partnership in legislation.

Boston University School of Public Health professor and former researcher for the CDC Michael Siegel thinks the temporary ban is vague and does not address the root cause of vaping illnesses, the majority of which come from black-market, THC-infused products. In an interview with WBUR, Dr. Siegel said, “people need to know specifically what to avoid. It would be like if we had an outbreak of contaminated lettuce and the health department put out a warning saying, ‘Do not eat any vegetables.’ That’s not helpful.” The temporary ban does not specify what is particularly dangerous about vaping products, beyond banning all types of vapes. “To try to lump nicotine products that are being sold by stores into that mix is very deceptive,” Siegel said.

A significant hole in Massachusetts’ vape ban is the lack of support for nicotine addicts. Many cigarette users turn to vaping to help reduce reliance on tobacco smoke. Despite continued controversy around the efficacy of vaping as a smoking alternative, nicotine users should not be left high and dry during a public health crisis: they, too, need support. One could argue that since Massachusetts’ new ban does not prohibit non-flavored nicotine products, this problem is resolved, but the ban still punishes non-flavored options. A 75% excise tax, depending on consumer elasticity, could push nicotine users back to cigarettes for purely economic reasons.

A final line of defense against the emergency vape ban is the lack of regional legislative partners. As we’ve mentioned, Rhode Island and New Hampshire are Massachusetts’ neighbors, and are certainly not far from Tufts. The vape ban, rather than preventing vape use as it is intended, instead forces users to drive to neighboring states. Users without access to a car? Reliant on nicotine, they could be forced to turn to cigarettes or the black market. The research on legal vaping products remains limited to a handful of studies, and even less is known about black market vaping products. Unregulated or counterfeit products from the black market are likely to be even more dangerous than Juuls and other brands of e-cigarettes. 

Addiction is a tricky issue, and Massachusetts is not doing enough to tread carefully. Vaping is incredibly popular among college students and other youth, and according to Dr. Marina Picciotto, a neuroscientist at Yale, “adolescents don’t think they will get addicted to nicotine, but when they do want to stop, they find it’s very difficult.” When faced with a difficult choice, should young people be forced to turn to the black market?

The Massachusetts State Senate should refrain from enacting the State House’s new vape ban. A more nuanced approach to addiction, vaping and the current health crisis is necessary. We cannot solve complex problems with one-size-fits-all solutions, extractive taxes or total bans. These regulations affect small businesses, nicotine and marijuana users, Tufts students and multitudinous citizens and residents across Massachusetts; the response should be proportional to the problem.