Again and again, former smokers sat Friday before a man and a woman from the state Department of Public Health and described quitting cigarettes by vaping nicotine. They urged the officials to return electronic cigarettes to Massachusetts stores.
“My life today is so much better now that I don’t smoke cigarettes,” said David Sailer, 55, of North Attleboro. “The vaping and the vape shop really saved my life.”
The applause-filled hearing was the first time medical marijuana patients, nicotine vape consumers, and vape shop owners could speak face-to-face with Governor Charlie Baker’s administration since Baker temporarily banned sales of nicotine and marijuana vapes amid a nationwide outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses.
The legally contested ban, which was first set to last four months, may be extended indefinitely on Dec. 11 by a vote of Baker’s Public Health Council. The Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments on requests to lift the ban Dec. 9.
In a packed room in downtown Boston, the two health officials jotted notes, limiting each comment to three minutes without answering the speakers. More than 100 people submitted written comments, and at least 35 people testified, including a public health professor and two members of the state Cannabis Control Commission.
The hearing came after a state judge ruled Baker’s administration didn’t follow the proper procedure before banning the products Sept. 24 and said it should have first taken other steps, including hearing from those affected.
Baker has said the ban was necessary to protect the public while federal authorities investigated the cause of the outbreak. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the illness is largely linked to marijuana oil cartridges purchased on the illicit market, and on Nov. 8 identified a main culprit as vitamin E acetate, a honey-like chemical used as an additive.
But some of those sickened reported vaping only nicotine, complicating the investigation. In Massachusetts, officials say three people have died — two who vaped only nicotine and one who vaped nicotine and marijuana products.
Nationwide, more than 2,200 people have fallen ill and at least 47 people have died. About a third of patients reported vaping only cannabis products, while many vaped nicotine and marijuana. A smaller percentage — 13 percent — said they used nicotine vapes only.
The cannabis control commissioners, in their testimony Friday, requested the health officials share any information on the source of vaping products that made people sick in Massachusetts. They particularly wanted to learn whether any illnesses were linked to regulated cannabis retailers. After a judge ruled the commission should decide whether to lift the ban on medical marijuana vapes, the commission requested the information from the Department of Public Health earlier this month but hasn’t received it. Currently, the products are quarantined.
“Like you, we are concerned about the health of medical marijuana patients and the risk of inadvertently causing more people to obtain THC vape products from informal sources, which at a national level are linked to the majority of cases,” said Steven Hoffman, the commission chairman. “We share the same urgency in minimizing these risks and responding with appropriate regulations as quickly and safely as possible.”
Commissioner Shaleen Title echoed Hoffman’s pleas, adding, “Knowing whether any of the people who became sick or died used a regulated THC vape product will not only inform our regulations, but also allow us to inform patients and consumers who may have purchased the same product and may be using those products today.”
Ann Scales, a DPH spokeswoman, said the department has asked patients where they bought their vaping products, including whether they came from a vape shop, a friend or acquaintance, a licensed marijuana store, or online. She said the department was listening to all comments and would review them but would not respond to them Friday.
Also, many consumers at the hearing said the ban had not kept them from vaping, as they just drove to nearby states or found online sellers.
Giancarlo D’Alotto, 26, told the officials the ban was “ludicrous,” saying he had noticeably better health since switching from smoking to vaping three years ago.
“You are essentially condemning us to smoke combustible cigarettes,” D’Alotto said. “Department of Public Health — I thought health was at the forefront of that.”
Vape shop owners testified about their looming financial ruin.
“My shop should not be shut down due to a problem with THC cartridges sold by drug dealers,” said Jonathan Lau, owner of The Vape Shop in Brighton, with his wife and two young children beside him.
His 6-year-old son said into the microphone, to great applause: “Why does the government ban vaping but not smoking?”