Governor Charlie Baker’s ban on vape sales will lift Wednesday, nearly three months after it started amid an outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries.
Baker’s public health council will vote on regulations Wednesday that could pave the way for some nicotine products to return to stores, albeit under tighter restrictions.
Since the ban took effect, a flurry of lawsuits, scientific updates, and government decisions have altered the world of vaping — including a new law passed by the Legislature that banned flavored nicotine products in an effort to curb teenage vaping. Here’s the latest.
What happens Wednesday?
Baker’s emergency ban on all nicotine and marijuana vape sales will expire, but the products will likely not return to stores right away. Unflavored nicotine vapes will likely resume sales sometime soon, but cannabis vapes will remain quarantined by the Cannabis Control Commission, which has not yet signaled when it might allow sales to resume.
The Massachusetts Public Health Council will vote on regulations to implement a new tobacco control law, passed last month, that heavily restricts the sale of nicotine vaping products and flavored vapes.
The council will consider rules that would: require vape shops to post signs warning customers of the dangers of severe lung disease linked to vaping products; affirm the state’s authority to ban products found to pose substantial danger; specify inspection and enforcement procedures to ensure retailer compliance; and require all vaping products to be placed behind the counter in stores that allow customers inside who are under 21.
What does the new tobacco law do?
The new law, An Act Modernizing Tobacco Control, bans all flavored nicotine vaping product sales from stores and allows them to be sold only for on-site consumption at licensed smoking bars. The law also restricts the sale of vaping products with high levels of nicotine — over 35 milligrams per milliliter — to licensed adult-only tobacco stores and smoking bars. Unflavored vaping products with less nicotine content will still be sold in convenience stores and gas stations.
Starting June 1, sales of menthol cigarettes and flavored chewing tobacco will also be restricted to on-site consumption at smoking bars. That is also when a new 75 percent excise tax on nicotine vaping products will begin.
The law does not include penalties for personal possession or use of flavored nicotine or tobacco products, but carries fines for selling such products without a license.
How soon could unflavored nicotine vape sales resume?
It’s unclear how long it could take from the time the council passes its regulations until retailers will be able to comply and resume sales of vaping products.
What’s happening with marijuana vapes?
Baker has said the Cannabis Control Commission, not his administration, will decide how to handle marijuana vapes.
The commission ordered all the cannabis oil vaping products quarantined while it worked to ensure that its licensed labs could adequately test for vitamin E acetate and other potential toxins. Federal authorities have identified vitamin E acetate, a honey-like substance sometimes used as an additive in marijuana oil cartridges, as a main culprit in the outbreak of lung illnesses.
A commission spokeswoman said Tuesday the quarantine “will remain in place until validated tests confirm regulated products do not contain substances of concern that may be causing these illnesses.”
The commission’s next public meeting is Dec. 19, though its executive director has the authority to change or lift the quarantine at any time.
What do we know now about the cause of the lung illnesses?
So far, 2,291 people have been hospitalized nationwide and 48 have died. In Massachusetts, 90 people have been sickened by vaping and three have died. Symptoms include severe breathing problems, chest pain, coughing, and chest scans showing possible evidence of lung damage.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the number of new illnesses seemed to peak around Sept. 15 and appeared to be largely linked to marijuana oil vaping products sold on the illicit market, where vitamin E acetate was often used as an additive. The CDC warned there may be multiple causes and the investigation continues.
Nationwide, 80 percent of patients interviewed reported vaping THC, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana. About 13 percent reported exclusive use of nicotine vapes.
In Massachusetts, 39 percent reported vaping only THC, 21 percent reported vaping both nicotine and THC, and 31 percent said they vaped nicotine only. Of 49 patients interviewed, six reported purchasing THC vapes from licensed cannabis dispensaries. One of those also bought illicit THC vapes, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health said Tuesday. State officials recently released the brand names of products that patients reported using, such as Dank, TKO, and Kingpen.
What was the ban’s impact?
Along the border in New Hampshire and Maine, sales of nicotine and cannabis vaping products have boomed, with some retailers logging a doubling or more of sales. Meanwhile, vape businesses in Massachusetts have reported layoffs and closings. Cannabis advocates warned the ban pushed people toward dangerous products on the illicit market.
More Massachusetts residents have requested the state’s free nicotine patches, gum, and other help to quit.
The state’s rapid decline in sales of traditional cigarettes slowed for a period, going from a nearly 10 percent year-over-year decrease during the month before the ban to a 4 percent dip the month after it took effect, according to the investment bank Piper Jaffray, which tracks the sector. The Baker administration said that in November, the ban’s second month, cigarette sales fell by nearly 20 percent. Sales fluctuate monthly and it’s not always clear why.
Public health advocates have long been divided over e-cigarettes, which are largely believed to be less harmful than combustible cigarettes but still pose significant health dangers, are highly addictive, and have hooked many non-smoking teenagers.
Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NaomiMartin.