Editorial: Lift the vaping ban, or give more info

  • In this Aug. 28, 2019, file photo, a man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette in Portland, Maine. AP

Published: 10/18/2019 6:00:20 PM
Modified: 10/18/2019 6:00:07 PM

We’re now nearly a month into Gov. Charlie Baker’s unilateral four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products. How did we get here? It’s really not clear. Very little information has come out of the governor’s office to justify what appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to recent reports that vaping may be linked to lung illnesses.

Just this week, at the same time state health officials reported 10 new cases of vaping-associated pulmonary injury — bringing the total to 29 cases, 10 confirmed and 19 probable — they also admitted that they can’t pinpoint the exact cause of the outbreak.

We’re not dealing with ebola here. While this is a serious issue, and nearly 30 people appear to have died nationwide in connection with vaping — including a woman in her 60s in Hampshire County — the appropriate steps are a strong education campaign and a stark warning from state officials about the potential dangers of vaping products. We need more information — not arbitrary authoritarian action.

While this vaping scare did not start in Massachusetts, the Bay State has responded more forcefully than any other state to news that more than 1,000 people nationwide have been hospitalized, apparently due to vaping.

Baker on Sept. 24 announced the temporary ban on vaping products in the state but largely has not clarified the state’s thinking on what will be accomplished in that time.

“The ban allows us a pause so that we can do these investigations and further our understanding and put in regulatory framework to protect all of us and especially our youth,” Monica Bharel, Massachusetts public health commissioner, said at a news conference this week.

It’s questionable whether a ban will “protect all of us,” and it is most certainly hurting the livelihoods of 2,500 workers employed in the nicotine-vapor-products industry. The ban makes no distinction between vaping products that contain THC and ones that contain nicotine only.

The ban also won’t “protect” those addicted to nicotine who may be pushed to products, like cigarettes, that we know to be extremely harmful to health. And those who wish to try vaping marijuana products may be pushed to the black market, where unregulated vaping products may be even more dangerous than those sold at sanctioned stores.

These arguments were expected to be made in Suffolk County Superior Court on Friday, where representatives from the Vapor Technology Association asked a judge to declare the ban unlawful. They argued that it will “irreparably destroy Massachusetts’ $331 million” industry.

This isn’t the first instance of overreaction on the part of Massachusetts’ executive office, nor is Baker the first one to employ it.

In one of the most notorious examples, Gov. Deval Patrick in 2013 authorized a lockdown of the entire city of Boston, as well as some adjacent neighborhoods, in a failed effort to locate now-convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Soon after the ban was lifted, residents located Tsarnaev hiding in their boat.

In both 2013 and 2015, under Patrick and Baker, governor-imposed driving bans for “severe winter weather” have affected the state. In the instance in 2015, the amount of snow in western Mass. wound up being underwhelming compared to the “historic” snowfall predicted. Yet the driving ban remained, along with its threat of a fine and jail time for those who broke it.

Massachusetts governors should not so quickly resort to unilateral and authoritarian actions to solve problems. In most cases — and likely in our current situation — the facts on the ground do not warrant taking people’s freedoms away.

At the same time, we’re not at all sympathetic to the vaping industry at large, which has shown itself to be completely untrustworthy with regard to advertising to minors. We fully support Attorney General Maura Healey’s lawsuits against certain vaping retailers who have broken laws by targeting young people and then failing to verify customers’ ages. We are happy to see Juul took action this week to stop selling flavored electronic cigarettes online.

Healey is working with lawmakers to come up with a plan to ban flavored tobacco products, an appropriate discussion to have before the state Legislature, who can vote on the proposal.

We live in a democratic society. Does the vaping health scare rise to the level to have our rights taken away?

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