As concerns continue to mount nationwide about the health effects of vape use, Gov. Phil Murphy outlined a number of regulatory and legislative steps — like banning all flavored products — he believes New Jersey should take to reduce youth access to e-cigarettes.
Several state lawmakers reiterated their support for his key recommendations, which were contained in a report issued Thursday by a task force Murphy impaneled three weeks ago. The report also calls for blocking the sale of clothing that conceals these devices, new regulatory requirements for those that sell e-cigarettes, and a greater public and private collaboration to track and respond to health problems that result.
Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the health committee chairman and a sponsor of a vape flavor ban bill, said he would expand the legislation to end the sale of menthol traditional cigarettes as well — an idea Murphy said deserved consideration. Legislation Vitale championed outlawed flavored traditional cigarettes a decade ago, but menthol products were exempt.
And Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) — who questioned the need for Murphy’s panel — offered his own suggestions on how additional regulatory measures could reduce the public-health impacts of these devices. He has previously called for outlawing all e-cigarette products.
Murphy charged his Electronic Smoking Device Task Force with the mission of exploring what the state can do to better deter young people from using electronic smoking devices, educate the public about the potential dangers, and respond to related health concerns.
“Make no mistake, this is not a report that I or anyone else here intends to see placed on a shelf to collect dust,” the governor said at a Trenton press conference Thursday. “We can and should do more.”
Tightening restrictions of online sales
In addition to calling on the Legislature to ban flavored vapes — electronic devices that heat oil infused with nicotine or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, to create a vapor that users inhale — the report urges lawmakers to restrict online sales of these products. It notes how young people often turn to the internet to get around state law that restricts purchases to those 21 and older.
“The overriding conclusion is that electronic cigarette devices pose a threat to public health, particularly the health of our youth,” said acting state Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, who chaired the panel. She said the DOH is also more than doubling the staff on its “compliance buy” team, which monitors how vape shops are complying with state laws.
Garden State officials are now working with federal agencies to investigate 32 reports in the state of suspected lung disease related to the use of vapes. Fourteen others have been confirmed to fit the pattern established by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, there are 800 cases under review.
On Tuesday, the state DOH announced New Jersey’s first vape-related death, a North Jersey woman who died in August, one of 16 people nationwide who have lost their lives from lung disease thought to be associated with vaping.
More study needed
According to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic and published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, the vaping-associated illness can cause lung damage similar to the severe tissue burns seen in chemical warfare or toxic industrial accidents. The study involved tissue samples from 17 individuals including several who had died.
Experts have said more study is needed to identify what exactly is causing the damage, but many of the cases now under review nationwide involve products that had been tampered with or purchased on the street. Many also involve THC products, which are produced under a patchwork of local and state regulations.
In a press release, Sweeney said the state could help users avoid counterfeit products by requiring devices and supplies to contain a ‘tax stamp’ similar to the seal placed on traditional cigarettes that are sold legally. The system already exists and would be an easy way to help monitor sales and protect public health, he said.
“All vaping products pose a danger, but the counterfeit substances and black-market devices are acutely dangerous,” Sweeney said. “And young people are often drawn to black-market sales, putting them at even greater risk.”
But much of the concern has focused on flavors added to the oils — like cotton candy, sugar cereal or mango — which critics said are aimed at attracting young users. Similar concerns about flavored traditional cigarettes led to those being outlawed years ago.
“That (federal ban) was motivated by the same rationale (driving) the ban we are recommending today,” Persichilli said.
The DOH has published a number of e-cigarette resources for parents, educators, healthcare providers and young people on its website.
Explosion in vaping among teens
Smoking rates have declined in New Jersey and remain below the national average for adults and youths here, but e-cigarettes have become increasingly popular since 2014. While some of this reflects increasing use among adults seeking to quit or cut back on traditional smokes, health officials are concerned about the rising use among young people, who had shown less interest in recent years.
Across the country vape use among high school students rose nearly 80 percent from 2017 to 2018, and almost 50 percent for those in middle school, the CDC found. E-cigarettes do not contain the same cancer-causing tar found in traditional cigarettes, but they contain nicotine and are addictive.
“These flavors are designed precisely to hook a generation of young people on nicotine, a lifelong addiction,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, a physician and chair of the health committee in the lower house, who has also sponsored flavor-ban proposals, including a measure to eliminate menthol cigarettes.
“We’ve seen this play before and we know how it ends,” he said at Murphy’s event, noting the high death toll associated with smoking.
Nationwide, a half-dozen states — including New York and Massachusetts — have imposed temporary bans on flavored e-cigarette products, or are working on longer-term exclusions. A handful of cities have imposed similar restrictions and San Francisco will soon implement what is believed to be the nation’s only total vape ban, in 2020.
Vitale’s bill (S-3265) would prevent sales of vape flavorings and he said Thursday he would amend it to also include menthol-flavored traditional cigarettes. The measure has yet to have a hearing this session.
“Too often in government we are a day late and a dollar short, but we can’t wait any longer” to take action, said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), another sponsor of the bill, who joined Murphy to announce the report’s findings.
The task force — which met five times in the three weeks and reviewed more than 200 comments from the public — conceded that a number of vape users insisted that flavors were not just for kids. This was a common theme in a chat session that accompanied the governor’s live-streamed announcement Thursday on YouTube, where #bluerasberrysavedmylife was a recurring hashtag, along with #wevapewevote.
The report also recommended the state explore additional licensing restrictions — including limiting sales to stores that did not allow minors on the premises — and creating a central registry of all vape businesses. Vitale said the state was already supposed to create such a registry under an e-cigarette tax-reform measure that took effect in June.