It’s premature to judge whether Gov. Charlie Baker took a measured approach this week in announcing a four-month moratorium on the retail and online sale of all e-cigarette and vaping products in Massachusetts — or if he’s just blowing political smoke. But in light of available evidence, not to mention alarming reports from medical researchers, he certainly can’t be faulted for being rash.
Baker’s temporary ban, precipitated by numerous reports of vaping-related health issues from around the country, was branded by the governor as an emergency decree — labeling that seems a stretch at this preliminary stage. However, his explanation was perfectly plausible — suggesting that state government needs time in order to better understand and assess the health implications of a growth industry which has tripled its market over the past five years.
A former health-care executive, Baker said that over the next four months state health agencies will collect data from Massachusetts physicians and monitor ongoing research while exploring legislative and regulatory options.
Of course, that sentiment may appear at odds with prevailing wisdom in Massachusetts — where voters in 2008 decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, four years later legalized the drug for medical consumption, and in 2016 extended that to recreational use. All of these were initiatives enacted by ballot referendum and all were opposed by Baker, though he did work to establish the regulatory frameworks to implement medical and recreational use.
For the uninitiated, e-cigarettes are devices which produce an aerosol vapor by heating an e-liquid that typically contains propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin along with nicotine, various flavorings and other chemicals — but not tobacco. For that reason, vaping is considered a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes, and has been promoted and used by individuals trying to kick their addiction to tobacco.
“Safer” does not necessarily mean “safe,” however. For one thing, as a nicotine delivery system electronic cigarettes are considered just as addictive as traditional ones. For another thing, recent reports of serious lung illnesses allegedly linked to vaping are yet to be fully explained.
Partly because of that uncertainty several states, beginning with Michigan, already have banned the sale of flavored e-cigarette products, either through executive or legislative action. The Trump administration also announced a similar policy at the federal level, though it has yet to be implemented by the Food and Drug Administration.
The primary difference in Massachusetts is that Baker’s moratorium, which takes effect immediately and lasts through the end of January, was extended to all e-cig and vaping products.
This approach, while sensible, is not perfect. In the short term, enforcement at the local level is likely to be uneven across the state’s 351 cities and towns. And unless the administration is planning confiscatory roadblocks, e-smokers will still be able to purchase vaping products in Rhode Island or New Hampshire (which might just be a good safety valve for those using e-cigarettes as a tobacco alternative). A long-term or permanent ban would almost certainly create a vast vaping black market, with all the unsavory elements that accompany illicit commerce.
But for now, while the governor’s exploratory approach to a legitimate health concern may not be just what the doctor ordered, it should leave most of us breathing a little easier.