In search of a smoking gun

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Gov. Charlie Baker issued an unprecedented four-month ban of all vaping products last week, amid growing concerns about illnesses and deaths associated with vaping. Baker declared a public health emergency because of the uncertainty surrounding the illnesses and deaths being reported nationwide.

There was almost immediate pushback to the governor’s ban, similar to the tweet by state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth. “Things to declare a public health emergency on before vape products: guns- 40,000 deaths nationwide, fossil fuels- 200,000 [deaths], actual cigarettes- 480,000 [deaths], vaping- 9 [deaths],” Fernandes wrote in his tweet.

Fernandes, in a statement to The Times, repeated an oft-used criticism of the governor’s ban: “I share some concerns that this vape ban may lead users to switch to cigarettes, which kill 500,000 Americans each year. Hopefully it won’t happen, but if cigarette sales rise during the ban, it is possible this emergency declaration will have a negative impact on public health,” Fernandes said. 

But what Fernandes and others seem to ignore is that while most of the vaping illness and deaths have been associated with black-market products from China containing vitamin E acetate, no one has been able to say with 100 percent certainty that those products are solely responsible for the outbreak.

In nearly every story about the ban on vape-related products, a caveat has been included like this one in Saturday’s Boston Globe: “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday it’s still investigating the cause of the illnesses, and cautioned that no single chemical has been linked to all patients. However, it updated its warning to consumers to avoid vaping all products, particularly marijuana, adding that the cause ‘might be related’ to prefilled cartridges containing THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis.”

The key word there is “might.”

Since Fernandes tweeted, the number of deaths is up to 15, and the illnesses are at 805. 

Nothing in the governor’s actions says that he’s OK with deaths related to fossil fuels, cigarettes, or guns. In fact, the Republican governor has worked with the Democratic-dominated state legislature to pass some of the toughest gun laws in the country — most recently adding an extreme risk protective order to get guns out of the hands of someone who is a threat to himself or others.

What we should be concerned about is the report in Saturday’s Globe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has failed to regulate vaping and e-cigarettes.

“After years of grinding through the bureaucratic process and fending off litigation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2016 declared that it was finally able to regulate electronic cigarettes,” the newspaper reported. “But it would still be years before the agency would require e-cigarette makers to provide information on the health effects of their products, so the FDA could determine whether they should stay on the market. The first deadline for that information was 2018, but the FDA moved it back to 2022. The lumbering pace of oversight, marked by repeated delays, is emblematic of the many opportunities that medical specialists say the FDA missed to head off what has become an urgent public health crisis around vaping. The inaction, these critics say, allowed two separate but related problems to build: a recent outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses and an alarming rise in teenagers’ use of nicotine e-cigarettes.”

Anyone who suggests that vaping is regulated and healthier than smoking cigarettes is speaking from hopes, not reality. We simply don’t know enough about the health effects of vaping.

What we do know from our high school on the Island is that these products too easily find their way into the hands of our youth.

The governor’s ban was the right call. We need to find out now what the health effects of vaping are, and provide the type of information and warnings that cigarette smokers receive.