BOSTON – Opponents of the Baker administration’s temporary ban on all vaping products came out in force Friday to slam the emergency regulation in the only public hearing scheduled on its impact.
One after another, speakers who packed the hearing to standing room only argued that the governor’s step was draconian and would harm local businesses or drive users toward an illicit market. Applause was frequent, and at least one attendee wore a shirt bearing the message “I Vape, I vote.”
Many shared personal stories of addiction to cigarettes that had only been curbed with vaping products.
“If there’s going to be nicotine still sold in cigarettes, I should be allowed to smoke nicotine in a vape especially if it’s a healthier alternative,” vape user Kyle Oliva told Department of Public Health officials at the hearing.
Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the ban on Sept. 24 amid a national outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses, hoping that a four-month pause on all sales of vape products would allow officials to gather more definitive information about the cause of those illnesses and deaths.
The ban was shortened to three months, now set to expire on Dec. 24, after a judge ordered the administration to refile its ban on nicotine vaping products as an emergency regulation. That ruling asserted that only the Cannabis Control Commission could pull medical marijuana vaping products off shelves, and the commission’s executive director later did so as a quarantine.
Three Massachusetts deaths have been linked to the outbreak so far.
Many speakers at Friday’s hearing, however, argued that a blanket ban on all vaping products unfairly punishes legal, regulated nicotine for potential problems with THC-containing cannabis vapes or illicit products.
Boston University School of Public Health professor Michael Siegel pointed to a Nov. 8 announcement from the Centers for Disease Control that vitamin E acetate, often added as a thickening agent to products that contain THC, had been identified in 29 out of 29 samples from patients afflicted with the illness.
The only “rational action” for state regulators to take in the wake of the CDC’s update, Siegel argued, was to discontinue the ban from applying to nicotine products.
“Not only is this ban not preventing any outbreak cases — because those cases are not being caused by the banned products — but the ban is likely making the outbreak worse,” Siegel testified. “Why? Because youth who can no longer access nicotine e-liquids are simply switching over to many of the sweet, fruity, alcohol-based and other attractive flavors that are readily available in THC vape products.”
Several attendees at Friday’s hearing said their businesses had been devastated by the ban. Jonathan Lau, who owns The Vape Shop in Brighton, told reporters that he had to lay off three employees and has $50,000 to $60,000 in products he cannot sell. He said he will likely need to file for bankruptcy.
“I myself am stuck with two leases for another two years on locations that I can’t sell anything out of, or at least I can’t sell my flavored nicotine to help people quit smoking,” he said.
Lau brought his children to the microphone with him at Friday’s hearing, and his 6-year-old son Jayden closed his father’s testimony by asking officials why vaping was banned but not smoking.
Separate from Baker’s temporary prohibition on sale of all vaping products, the Legislature agreed this week on a bill that would permanently bar businesses from offering any flavored tobacco product, including what would be a first-in-the-nation ban on mentholated cigarettes.
Lawmakers argued the flavor ban is necessary to prevent addictive nicotine products from being marketed toward youth, but speakers fired back at Friday’s hearing that flavors can be a helpful tool to help smokers switch from combustible cigarettes to vaping.
Baker has not indicated if he supports the menthol component or what his plans are regarding the bill.
The Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral arguments on Dec. 9 in a lawsuit the Vapor Technology Administration filed against Baker’s vape ban.