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After illnesses nationwide, Baker, Walsh eyeing stricter vaping regulations

The announcements come after New York and Michigan this week outlawed the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, and President Trump said officials have plans to ban similar products at the federal level in the wake of a nationwide outbreak.
The announcements come after New York and Michigan this week outlawed the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, and President Trump said officials have plans to ban similar products at the federal level in the wake of a nationwide outbreak.EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

State and city leaders said Wednesday that they are weighing stricter regulations on the sale of electronic cigarettes and flavored tobacco products, the latest in a series of efforts that elected officials have pushed amid an explosion of vaping-related illnesses nationwide.

Governor Charlie Baker said he is evaluating what emergency options the state has to address the sale of vaping products, and Mayor Martin J. Walsh proposed regulations in Boston to help curb youth vaping by limiting where mint and menthol nicotine products can be purchased.

The announcements come after New York and Michigan this week outlawed the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, and President Trump said officials have plans to ban similar products at the federal level in the wake of a nationwide outbreak. So far, officials have said there are 38 possible cases in Massachusetts of a mysterious lung illness linked to vaping, including among teenagers.

Baker is “concerned” about the spike in illnesses, according to the administration, which has already mandated that clinicians report any suspected cases of breathing illnesses tied to e-cigarette use. And he indicated Wednesday he could go further.

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His office, however, did not provide details on what potential regulations could include. State lawmakers are also weighing separate legislation that would ban all flavored tobacco products. A new law already took effect this year raising the legal age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21.

“The administration is . . . evaluating emergency regulatory options regarding the sale of vaping products and continues to monitor the federal government’s actions toward a ban on flavored vaping products,” said Lizzy Guyton, a Baker spokeswoman.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified nearly 400 probable cases of lung illnesses tied to vaping, including at least seven deaths. Most of the patients reported vaping cannabis, federal officials said, but many also said they vaped cannabis and nicotine, and some said they vaped only nicotine.

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On Wednesday, Walsh said in a statement that the Boston Public Health Commission is proposing regulations that would restrict the sale of mint and menthol nicotine and tobacco products to “verified adult-only tobacco retailers.”

The city has 47 so-called adult-only retailers, which are allowed to sell flavored products. That’s opposed to more than 750 “all-ages” locations, which can currently sell tobacco and nicotine products but not blunt wraps or flavored products other than menthol.

Walsh’s office framed the plans as an effort to target vaping and tobacco use among youth in the city. Officials plan to hold a public hearing on the proposal in November.

“Teen vaping is an epidemic that is particularly alarming because we know that nicotine use at a young age can have the power to lead to a lifelong dependency,” Walsh said in a statement.

The concern about the spike in hospitalization has helped kick up attention on two bills on Beacon Hill — one each in the House and Senate — that would prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including the liquid used in e-cigarettes and other vaping devices.

The ban, which supporters have said would be the farthest-reaching in the country, would apply to all flavors, including menthol, mint, and wintergreen, which to date have often been exempted from flavor-related regulations on the grounds they are “adult” flavors.

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Whether the Legislature pursues a wider ban is unclear — the legislation currently sits before the Committee on Public Health — but a prohibition on flavored vaping products has high-profile support. Senate President Karen E. Spilka supports banning flavored e-cigarettes, according to her office, as does Attorney General Maura Healey.

“E-cigarette companies are selling flavored products to increase their appeal to youth and get a new generation addicted to nicotine, and we must do all we can to stop them,” Healey said.

Representative Danielle W. Gregoire, who filed the House bill, said discussion this week has picked up behind the scenes following the Legislature’s return from its informal summer break.

“I think we have momentum,” the Marlborough Democrat said. “This would be a first-in-the-nation ban. It would be major policy.”

Other states have enacted bans outside of legislative channels. A New York state health panel voted this week to outlaw the sale of flavored e-cigarettes after Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said he would pursue an emergency order, and Michigan health officials filed emergency rules Wednesday to halt the sales there.

According to Baker’s office, an executive order does not give the governor the authority to ban the sale of a product. And experts say pursuing a prohibition through that channel, as opposed to legislation, could face legal challenges.

“To me, it would be problematic,” said Gerry McDonough, an attorney who’s written about state administrative law.

Senator John F. Keenan, the lead sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, said the Legislature has the power to put a ban into effect “as quickly as any regulation” could. Spilka’s office said she is still reviewing the legislation, and a spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he’s still waiting for the public health committee to provide its recommendations.

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Baker’s office said Wednesday that he’s open to legislation that would help restrict the access of vaping products to youths. He also earlier this year proposed a tax on e-cigarettes as part of his annual spending plan, though the measure wasn’t included in the final budget.

But some question whether an outright ban is the correct response to the spike in illnesses. Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University, said given that many cases are tied to marijuana use, more effective messaging with young people about its dangers and better enforcement to disrupt the illicit trade would be more effective.

And a potential ban on flavored e-cigarettes has also drawn opposition, including from Massachusetts retailers who say it’s a misplaced attempt at a solution.

“It’s a panicked response,” said Jon Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association. “We fully understand the problem with youth vaping products. But it’s one that requires a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.”

Advocates who have long pushed for a ban disagree, pointing to the 2009 federal prohibition on flavored cigarettes that helped drive down teen smoking over the last decade.

“This epidemic was not caused by a single batch of bad THC,” said Dr. Jonathan P. Winickoff, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “A ban on flavored tobacco products, generally, is exactly where we want to be in tackling the youth vaping epidemic.”

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Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com.