When it comes to the looming national health crisis posed by youth vaping, it looks like it will be every state for itself for the foreseeable future. President Trump’s ban on flavored vaping products has, like a lot of his other promises, just gone up in smoke.
For Massachusetts, that means we need a heavy lift this week on Beacon Hill, where lawmakers will need to get their flavored tobacco ban and e-cigarette regulatory framework to Governor Charlie Baker before his temporary vaping ban expires Dec. 24.
Across the country, more than 5 million middle and high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days; more than a million of those acknowledged vaping on a daily basis. “While cigarette smoking is at an all-time low among high school students, increases in e-cigarette use have reversed the progress made in the decline of overall youth tobacco use,” the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control reported in its 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey.
Two months ago, thenational youth vaping crisis — along with 2,000 vaping-related illnesses and 40 deaths — had indeed attracted the attention of Trump, who vowed action. But apparently the politics of vaping and a full-court press from those who make a buck off the product are more important to the president as the next election looms than is the health of the next generation.
Never mind that the Food and Drug Administration had been at work for more than a year on vaping sale restrictions under its now-departed commissioner, Scott Gottlieb. By September, the FDA was ready to go with a ban on all flavored products, restricting them to adults-only stores or sections of stores and requiring age verification. By the end of October, Trump had already backed down on including menthol as part of the ban.
Weeks later, after a lobbying effort by the Vapor Technology Association, groups representing small business retailers, and the president’s political operatives, who pointed to the #IvapeIvote social media phenomenon, the president has by all accounts folded. An announcement scheduled by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar II is on permanent hold.
A state-by-state approach, which of course also leaves Internet sales largely unregulated, is surely second best — but second best it will have to be if there is any hope of curtailing the widespread use of this nicotine delivery system to a new generation.
Rhode Island has an emergency regulation in place banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes as it considers its next move. Beginning in January, New Hampshire will increase the age for buying vaping products from 18 to 19 and impose new taxes on the product.
The Massachusetts House voted for a solid and sweeping piece of legislation last week aimed at banning all tobacco flavors, restricting sales of higher nicotine products to those over age 21, and raising the taxes on vaping products, which in turn will raise the cost — often a good way to deter young smokers. The House bill would make the Commonwealth the first state in the nation to ban all flavored tobacco. The state Senate takes its turn at the issue this week, in what is expected to be its last formal session of the year. And therein lies what could be a problem — time. That and a kind of unspoken testiness that has become apparent between the two legislative branches this session.
The governor’s ban bought the Legislature time to put together a responsible approach to a growing health problem — not just those cases that ended up in the emergency room, but also the larger crisis of youth vaping. This is a time for the House and Senate to work collaboratively to fill that giant policy void left by the White House. It’s up to Massachusetts, for better or worse, to set an example for the nation and to make clear that the health of our youth cannot wait.