GROTON – The country’s eyes turned to the Massachusetts House last week when it voted to ban sales on flavored vaping and tobacco products, including menthol and mint cigarettes, and impose an excise tax on electronic cigarettes.
The legislation was passed amidst the continued concerns for users of e-cigarettes suffering lung damage, with three people dying from vaping-related lung illness in the state.
The legislation was overwhelmingly approved. Not among the majority, however, was 1st Middlesex District Rep. Sheila Harrington.
Speaking over the phone last Thursday, Harrington said that she thought the ban would not so much stop people from using vapes, but simply force them to buy them somewhere else, hurting local merchants
“Everyone in the commonwealth is near a border district where you can buy this stuff, my border in particular is near New Hampshire,” Harrington said. “We’re going to lose more revenue because when we send people to another state, they’ll buy more stuff. It’s naive to think this will leave a more dramatic effect, they’ll just get it from Nashua.”
Harrington has a solid point in regards to the availability of vapes around the state. As of this month, New Hampshire has yet to implement a state-wide ban of its own. Vermont has no state-wide ban, but the city of Fair Haven banned vaping in town-owned areas and playgrounds back in October. New York and Rhode Island have their own state-wide bans on vaping.
The concern that Harrington has is the loss local businesses that have seen a boom in revenue since selling flavored vapes will have with the ban in effect.
“Say you live in Pepperell,” she explained. “Why not just drive up to Hollis (several miles away in New Hampshire) and not pay taxes for a flavored vape? I think this hurts the economy in my district specifically. It prevents the sale, but it doesn’t prevent the use.”
Besides Groton and Pepperell, Harrington represents Ashby, Dunstable, Townsend and Ayer’s precinct 1.
Harrington estimates a total state revenue loss between $62 to $65 million if local retailers, including entire shops dedicated to selling flavored vapes and convenience stores that offer cartridges, are kept from selling both flavored vapes and flavored cigarettes.
She said that she’s seen some vape stores with signs in the window that read, “Thank you Governor Baker for putting me out of business.”
One of those impacted businesses is Digital Cloudz Vape Shop located on Main Street in Ayer.
Owner Chad Fox said that his business had no push back from local government or residents from when it first opened in April 2015 to when the lung-injury epidemic started this year. He added that the shop adhered to the state-mandated 21-and-over age restriction for shop patrons and noted how most of its customers were adults who liked flavored vapes.
“This has 100% impacted my business, my family and my financial ways to provide for my family,” Fox said of the recent legislature. “I had to totally close down my business because there’s nothing in there we can sell anymore. I immediately lost my job. We have two more years on our lease and have business expenses.”
Fox noted how the main issue of concern should be vape cartridges sold on the black market that contain traces of vitamin E acetate. He noted a statement made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month that identified vitamin E acetate as a “chemical of concern.”
The organization’s noted came due to vitamin E acetate being a possible additive to cartridges as a “thickening agent” in e-cigarettes that also contain THC. The CDC also noted that fluid samples taken from the lungs of patients with vaping-associated lung injury found traces of vitamin E acetate.
“We saw that there was a downturn of business in August because vaping-related illnesses were coming down from tainted black market cartridges,” Fox said. “People were getting scared and asked us questions.”
As an alternative to the “well-intentioned, but rash” legislature, Harrington said she would rather see medical professionals perform deep investigations into what specifically are in the e-cigarettes and whether or not they cause lung damage.
“My hope is that there’s research done during this period that comes up with some kind of conclusion,” she explained. “If they can isolate what dangerous products are coming in people’s lungs, that might help. I think that would make more sense to people.
Harrington acknowledged that many citizens have used vaping and e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking regular cigarettes, but she still emphasized the danger of using e-cigarettes.
“I know it’s very hard when we’re talking about us controlling adults,” she said. “It’s not overreaching on my part to tell someone over 60, ‘I’m not going to let you do this.’ Let’s find out if we can isolate and take that poison out of people.”
“Banning flavors and having the tax will put us all out of business,” Fox said.