Health officials argue vaping ban could be an opportunity for education

The panel discussion featured Andrew Kline, director of public policy at National Comission Industry Association, Dr. Jordan Tishler, instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Jennifer Flanagan, comissioner at the state's Cannabis Control Comission, Oct. 24, 2019, Boston, Mass. Photo by Zheng Zong / BU News Service

By David Zheng Zong
BU News Service

BOSTON — As they work to stymie a public health crisis, local officials are using Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s four-month ban on the sale of vaping products as an opportunity for people to learn about the vaping industry and vaping-related health problems.

“I really think the fact that the consumers are to participate in this conversation, whether it’s a discourse, path or it’s just a curiosity level,” said Jennifer Flanagan, commissioner of the Cannabis Control Commission, at a panel discussion Thursday. “There’s a chance for people to really educate themselves on what these products are and what’s good for their body.”

The panel was part of the three-day Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition this week at Hynes Convention Center. Dr. Jordan Tishler, instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Andrew Kline, director of public policy at the National Cannabis Industry Association, were on the panel alongside Flanagan.

More than 1,200 people across the country are dying in intensive care units from “something that’s vaguely related to these [vaping] devices,” Tishler said. He argued we know very little about the safety of these devices and should learn more to create regulations.

The state’s Department of Public Health reported 61 confirmed cases of vaping-related lung disease when the ban was announced last month. Health officials currently believe that black market vaping products are primarily to blame. However, Kline argued that the ban may be counter-productive because it forces consumers who wish to buy vaping products to rely on the black market.

“When you enforce a ban, you are driving people to the illicit market, and that’s extremely dangerous,” Kline said. 

Kline said Colorado is “doing this the right way” by listing active and inactive ingredients rather than banning the entire industry.

But the public may not be fully informed about the dialogue that is happening, Flanagan said.

“There’s things that I was privy to in discussion that maybe the public didn’t know,” she said. “So my decisions were unpopular but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong.”

Flanagan said her role as commissioner only allows her to enforce the rules. The commission was not part of the conversation when the ban was introduced, she said.

“Believe me, if you put my former legislator hat back on, there’s a million things I’d like to do in this state that I didn’t get to finish before I left,” Flanagan said. “But when you’re talking prohibition, that would have to come from Beacon Hill or … from another ballot question.”

Kline had some positive things to say about the vaping ban, arguing that it serves as a business opportunity, stimulating more companies to solve the public health concern by coming up with better products. 

Flanagan reaffirmed that the vaping ban does not change marijuana legalization in the state, but residents can call the governor’s office or local representatives to learn more about the policy.

Tishler said he’s happy to explore vaping as a treatment option for smoking addictions or chronic treatment until superior technologies are available on the market under state regulations.

“I’m pleased to see this four-month hiatus. This is not returning to prohibition,” Tishler said. “Let’s figure out what’s going on and then come up with appropriate regulation.”

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