Baker mystified by state responses to vaping illnesses

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – With his temporary ban on vaping product sales set to end next week when public health officials adopt a new set of vaping rules, Gov. Charlie Baker this week expressed some surprise that other states did not follow his lead amid an outbreak of vaping-related illnesses.

After Baker spoke Thursday at the Pri-Med East conference, moderator Dr. Frank Domino from the UMass Medical School in Worcester thanked the governor for his “fantastic” work to address vaping and said it was widely appreciated in the medical community. The audience gave the governor a hearty round of applause.

“I really appreciate your bringing this one up,” Baker said. “I’ve taken a fair amount of grief for this, and we’ve been in a different place than a lot of other places around the country, which I actually don’t understand. I don’t think we’re in the wrong place.”

The illnesses, which have been blamed for three deaths in Massachusetts, prompted the Baker administration in September to institute an emergency ban on vaping product sales in the state. That ban, challenged and weakened in court, was set to lift Dec. 24 but Baker announced last week that it will instead expire Dec. 11 as new vaping regulations are put into place by the state Public Health Council.

Though other states have banned the sale of flavored vaping products, Massachusetts went further to ban all vaping products, though the order was weakened by the courts as it related to medical marijuana patients. Baker said Thursday morning that he doesn’t get why other states haven’t adopted the Massachusetts model.

“I continue to not understand why that hasn’t been pursued more significantly at either the federal level or in other states,” he said. “I mean, there’s a story on the front page of the Boston Globe today that says what we’ve done here in Massachusetts is driving a lot of the sales of these products into contiguous states around us and I don’t see how that is good for anybody.”

The governor told the Pri-Med conference that he asked Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders to bring in a group of doctors and researchers to talk about the rash of illnesses and injuries in September. Massachusetts has reported 90 probable or confirmed cases of vaping-related illnesses.

“They all basically said the same thing, which is that vaping, by its very nature, has risks associated with it that are not fully understood,” he said. “We were operating on a pretty solid foundation of input, guidance and expertise that came from a lot of the folks here in the commonwealth who just said there are some really big issues with this just generally that aren’t appreciated or understood and may not be for a while, which is why we made the decision we made.”

Domino told Baker that, “as a clinician, it was brave to do what you did and … it took guts to do what you did.”

On Thursday night, the Department of Public Health posted data to its website indicating that six patients with probable cases of vaping-associated lung injury reported vaping THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, and having purchased the THC at a licensed Massachusetts marijuana retailer. Another 22 patients, including 10 confirmed cases, reported vaping THC not purchased at a licensed retailer.

DPH said it cannot make “specific claims about the role of any individual product” and that it cannot independently verify the products and sources that patients report in interviews with public health officials.

On Friday morning, the Supreme Judicial Court announced that it has stayed all action in a challenge to Baker’s ban — and has indefinitely postponed oral arguments scheduled for Monday — because “the defendants assert that the emergency regulations that are at issue in this case will be rescinded, and the emergency declared by the Governor will be terminated, as will the Commissioner’s emergency order,” if the Public Health Council adopts the new regulations on Wednesday, as is expected.

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