After the Centers for Disease Control warned of hundreds of cases of potentially lethal vaping-associated pulmonary illness (VAPI) across the country and growing backlash over skyrocketing teen use, Massachusetts has gone much farther than other states and totally banned the sale of all vaping products for four months.
That’s not a typo. Republican Governor Charlie Baker issued an order, approved by the state’s Public Health Council, imposing a moratorium on the industry that “applies to all vaping products and devices,” per the Associated Press. That’s quite a bit farther than other states, like New York and Michigan, which have only banned flavored nicotine vape products of the type favored by teenagers. Whereas New York has not legalized recreational marijuana and Michigan, which has, did not include weed products in its ban, Baker made it clear that the ban applied both nicotine and marijuana vaping products. It also applies to both retail and online sales.
“The use of e-cigarettes and marijuana vaping products is exploding, and we are seeing reports of serious lung illnesses, particularly in our young people,” Baker told reporters, according to the AP.
Per the New York Times, the CDC has pegged the number of cases of VAPI across the country at 530, but the agency expects that number to grow this week. The CDC believes VAPI has been involved in at least nine deaths; both the CDC and state health authorities have not publicly identified a cause. While a popular theory is that the illness is a result of tainted black market THC cartridges that have been cut with dangerous substances—in which case it could be argued that banning legal cartridges would backfire—other cases have reportedly involved both THC or nicotine, or just nicotine.
According to Stat News, experts have cautioned that VAPI has not yet been conclusively tied to any specific substance and could be a range of conditions, or even a problem that has only recently been recognized. Some of the cases have reportedly been so severe that some survivors may live with permanent lung damage.
According to the Boston Globe, the Baker administration has characterized the four month ban as necessary to allow health authorities a clearer picture of what’s going on. Boston Children’s Hospital pediatric pulmonologist Dr. Alicia Casey, who appeared at the announcement alongside Baker, told reporters she had treated teenagers who required ventilators to survive, adding “I can assure you that these products are not safe. This ban is a critical and necessary step to combating this epidemic of youth vaping.”
Critics of the ban haven’t been shy about sounding off. According to the Washington Post, Baker’s office attempted to head off concerns that vape users will turn back to cigarettes by saying it would “devote more resources to programs that encourage people to quit smoking and increase the capacity of the Massachusetts Smokers’ Helpline.”
Shaleen Title, a commissioner with the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, wrote on Twitter that “This is a terrible decision. 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.”
According to the New York Times, a spokesman for beleaguered e-cig giant Juul, Austin Finan, said the ban would lead to a resurgence in smoking and “create a thriving black market” in unregulated products. (Juul, for what it’s worth, is partially owned by tobacco titan Altria and is facing numerous serious investigations about whether it marketed to teenagers and dubious health claims about its products.) American Vaping Association president George Conley said he expected a legal battle, according to the Times, asking “If a governor is permitted to just ban e-cigarettes for four months, what else could they ban?”
As of Tuesday, it does not appear that Baker’s office has considered using emergency powers to ban cigarettes, which the CDC says is responsible for 480,000 deaths a year across the country.