Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday declared a public health emergency in the state “due to severe lung disease associated with the use of e-cigarettes and marijuana-infused products.”
He ordered a four-month ban on selling vaping-related products, both in person and online, which the state Public Health Council quickly approved. Baker wants to better study the growing alternative to smoking cigarettes.
The move, announced at the Massachusetts State House Tuesday, comes amid growing national concern about the safety of vaping, with an as-yet-unexplained vaping-related lung disease causing several deaths and hundreds of illnesses nationwide.
“We as a commonwealth need to pause sales in order for our medical experts to collect more information about what is driving these life-threatening vaping-related illnesses,” Baker said. “We also need to better understand the inherent dangers of vaping both nicotine and marijuana.”
The ban would last through Jan. 25. It received the support of the New England Convenience Store Association — many convenience stores sell vaping products, but the association said it would urge all members to make them unavailable “right away.”
Baker’s administration said that 61 cases of lung injuries had been reported to the state’s health department, three of which have been confirmed and two found to be probably connected.
The governor said earlier Tuesday that his administration had met with medical professionals to talk about “appropriate next steps” on vaping. “This thing has our full attention,” he said.
The governors of Michigan and New York have taken similar actions in the last month, but Massachusetts’ ban is broader.
Michael Seilback, assistant vice president for state public policy at the American Lung Association, acknowledged the move by Massachusetts and said the federal Food and Drug Administration now needs to step up.
“From our perspective, it’s the absence of strong federal action by the FDA that is forcing states to have to make choices like this on how they are going to protect children and adults from the public health emergency of e-cigarettes,” he said.
E-cigarettes have been billed as a less harmful way for people to get their nicotine fix than traditional cigarettes, but the vaping industry has come under fire as teen vaping rates in the U.S. soar to record highs and federal officials warn of an outbreak of a mysterious, vaping-related lung disease that has killed eight people and sickened more than 500, most of them young men.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, of the CDC, told a congressional subcommittee Tuesday that she believes “hundreds more” lung illnesses have been reported to health authorities since Thursday.
The Trump administration is readying a federal ban on flavored e-cigarettes. Some nations have outlawed the products altogether, saying they pose too great a health risk.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, announced last week that it will stop selling e-cigarettes amid the uncertainty around the products.
Health officials have shared few details on what exactly is making people sick, and encouraged people to avoid vaping as they continue to investigate.
More than half of the people who have fallen ill are younger than 25, with 16% of all the patients younger than 18, Schuchat said, and three-quarters of the patients are male.
“Until we know more, if you are concerned about specific health risks, CDC recommends you do not use e-cigarettes or vaping products,” Schuchat said.
Health officials are struggling to figure out what’s making people sick. Some patients are reluctant to disclose what they were vaping, especially THC, which is illegal in most states. People are using an array of products and no one product, brand or substance has been linked to all the cases.
Most patients report vaping THC, the compound that produces a high in marijuana, Schuchat said. Many say they vape THC and nicotine, the addictive chemical used in e-cigarettes. Some of the patients, however, were only vaping nicotine, she said.
The FDA said it is analyzing more than 150 samples for the presence of a broad range of substances, including nicotine, THC, other cannabinoids, cutting agents, opioids, toxins and poisons.
The FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations has formally opened its own probe looking at what is making people sick and what is happening in the supply chain. The office is not pursuing any persecutions of personal use of any controlled substances in these cases.
Officials in New York state and elsewhere initially suspected vitamin E acetate, which was found in many of the vaping devices used by patients, as a possible cause. But FDA officials said it hasn’t been found in every case.
Baker’s news conference was a late addition to the governor’s schedule, which also included a groundbreaking for an elderly housing complex and delivering remarks at the MedTech conference at the Boston Convention Center.
Attending the news conference at the state house were Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel.
Democratic Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo said Tuesday that his legislative chamber is committed to addressing vaping and tobacco use among children.
The House is reviewing a bill that would ban the sale or distribution of any flavored tobacco or vape product to any consumer. The bill would carve out an exception for smoking bars.
“We look forward to collaborating with our partners in the senate and with the Baker administration to develop long-term, legislative solutions to these issues,” DeLeo said in a news release.
A lawmaker in Rhode Island also plans to introduce a bill to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in that state after the new legislative session begins in January.
Copyright Associated Press / NBC10 Boston