Campus divided about controversial vaping sales ban: Students react to Gov. Baker’s statewide health bill

The FDA has pinpointed the solvent, Vitamin E Acetate, as a culprit for vaping-related illnesses. (Thomas Maye / THE GATEPOST

By Thomas Maye

Opinions Editor

Campus officials have cautioned students about Gov. Charlie Baker’s four-month statewide ban on vaping products in response to a wave of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths the U.S. Surgeon General deemed a national epidemic.

Massachusetts reported its first death from vaping-related lung illness Oct. 7, sparking concern in the medical community. 

At the same time, multiple federal lawsuits have been filed against the Baker administration in response to the policy, which several local vape shops and chains said have unfairly put them out of business over health claims they consider unsubstantiated.

Students reactions are polarized in response to the bill, with impassioned concerns from both sides of the debate.

FSU itself does not permit the use of vaping products on campus – including THC, nicotine, and other products – according to Jay Hurtubise, director of Community Standards. 

Hurtubise said vaping nicotine products violates FSU’s “Tobacco-Free” policy, established September 2013. 

Meanwhile, THC is federally classified as an illegal substance, so Framingham State University prohibits vaping it on University property, he said. 

“In some incidents, a vape, vape pen, or e-cigarette may be considered drug-related paraphernalia,” particularly when used to consume controlled substances, he said.

Hurtubise added, “While the contents of a specific tank or cartridge [in a vaping device] may be interchanged by the user, the components of the liquids/substances are generally prohibited by FSU’s policies.” 

Brad Medeiros, chief of police at Framingham State, said, “In general, we [University Police] do not receive many calls for vaping or tobacco use.”

“When an officer responds to a situation involving tobacco use or vaping on campus, we try to gain compliance through conversation and advising the person about the policy,” he added.

“Should the situation continue, the individual could be referred to the student code of conduct office,” he said.

Joy LaGrutta, drug and alcohol outreach coordinator, said FSU offers a variety of resources for students who wish to quit smoking or vaping – including nicotine therapy patches, referrals to addiction specialist hotlines, and individual appointments with Health Center staff. 

LaGrutta said, “I am hopeful that the health research institutions across our country are working very hard to investigate what is causing this outbreak. I am sure that when they do, products that are considered safe will return to the market, and products that are dangerous will be eliminated.

“It is believed that products coming from the illicit market could be part of the problem, but not enough information is in place to determine for certain what exactly is causing the problem. It could also be coming from products on the legal market. This has not been ruled out,” she said.

FSU’s individual policies precede Baker’s statewide ban after declaring a public health emergency in a Sept. 24 press release, noting health findings from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) and concerns regarding youth vaping. 

In the press release, Baker said, “The purpose of this public health emergency is to temporarily pause all sales of vaping products so that we can work with our medical experts to identify what is making people sick and how to better regulate these products to protect the health of our residents.”

At the time of the press release, Massachusetts was the only state to outright ban all vaping products. Since then, Rhode Island has followed suit. 

The CDC, which is investigating the illness alongside the U.S. Food and Drug Administration  (FDA),  and state and local health departments, said as of October 2019, 18 people have died from vaping lung injuries across the country. More than 1,000 cases have been reported, with 80% of those afflicted being under the age of 35. 

“No single product or substance has been linked to all lung injury cases,” according to a statement on the CDC website. “The outbreak is occurring in the context of a dynamic marketplace for e-cigarette, or vaping, products, which may have a mix of ingredients, complex packaging, and supply chains, and include potentially illicit substances.”

The CDC web page lists the following symptoms of vaping lung injury: “cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain; nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea; and fatigue, fever, or weight loss.”

Several students said they supported the Baker administration’s response to these concerns.

Senior Cheryl Thomas said, “I think that it’s needed. … There isn’t enough research or scientific history behind it to know what the impact is on people’s long-term health.

“Just because it’s banned doesn’t mean they can’t take it away from people who already have it – but it might prevent people from getting it and getting hurt,” Thomas added.

“I have people who vape in my family. I don’t want them getting hurt,” she said.

Freshman Cian MacIver said more research needs to be conducted before vaping products go back on the market.

Senior Taylor Langmeyer said recent news has made her increasingly concerned about the health of her loved ones who continue to vape. 

Langmeyer said she was worried about her boyfriend’s older brothers after they began to show symptoms, including coughing and shortness of breath from regular use.  

University policies, state bans, and public outcry have not stopped some students from vaping, both on-campus and off. 

An FSU senior, who asked only to be identified as “Jane,” said she vaped THC throughout high school and during college to self-medicate her clinical depression. Jane said it helped her regulate her mood and feel enough motivation to continue pushing forward with her studies.

“All of the news stories about [contaminated] vape cartridges came from the black market, whereas I get mine from a legal dispensary from Massachusetts,” she said. “I’m not worried about anything happening to me, because it came from a legitimate source.”

Jane said she felt sympathy for youth affected by nicotine addiction from vaping. “It sucks that so many people are literally addicted to smoking a flash drive,” but she disagreed with an all-out ban, saying it ignored medicinal and smoking cessation purposes.

Junior Jordan Doherty said, “They’re making an issue of something before it really is an issue.

“Cigarettes, alcohol … there’s things that are actually killing people,” he said. Doherty added while he agreed more research would be beneficial, he considered the ban prematurely implemented. 

The FDA found inhalation of Vitamin E Acetate, a solvent used in various vape juices, has been responsible for many of the symptoms observed in victims. A bust in Wisconsin found 87% of illnesses to be linked directly to illicit THC instead of nicotine, particularly when purchased in unregulated black-market contexts, according to a reporter for The Associated Press.

To investigate these claims, reporters from NBC tested three THC cartridges from legal California dispensaries and 15 from black market sources. None of the regulated cartridges had contaminants, while 13  of 15 purchased from black market sources had Vitamin E Acetate. 

Many black market cartridges also contained myclobutanil, which turns into hydrogen cyanide when burned, they said.

Critics of Baker’s ban argue it fails to take the role of legally purchased, regulated vaping products into account. In a phone call, Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, called the ban “terrible public health policy.” 

Conley said according to several British studies, including those from The Royal College of Physicians, vaping can be used as an effective means to reduce cigarette smoking. 

“Any fair person looking at that data could not possibly conclude that vaping is worse than cigarette smoking,” he said.

As such, he said many people will go back to using cigarettes after the ban. 

Sophomore Cameron Dolson, similarly, said he largely disagreed with the ban, since many students use vaping as an alternative to cigarettes. “I know it’s only temporary, but practically speaking, I don’t really see a purpose for the ban,” he said. 

However, a French study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association has argued while vaping can reduce cigarette smoking, it can also potentially lead to higher rates of relapse. 

Three Massachusetts vape shops – Mass Dynamics, Boston Vapor, and Vick’s Vape Shop – have filed a federal lawsuit against the Baker administration, arguing the FDA already regulates e-cigarettes and other vaping products, making it an arbitrary “manufactured crisis.”

NPR reported a lawyer for one of the vape shops said, “This is, in effect, a death sentence for their business.”

Stacy Poritzky, owner of Vape Daddy’s in Framingham, told The MetroWest Daily News the ban will mean the end of her business.

The media firestorm has shaken many prominent companies that sell vaping products and caused stocks to plummet, according to Business Insider. The CEO of Juul, one of the most popular vaping brands in the country, stepped down from the company Sept. 25 in response to the controversy and said he “personally apologizes” for the rise in teen vaping.

Juul media contacts have not responded to The Gatepost’s request for comment.

Baker defended the decision, despite reports that many illnesses were caused specifically by illicit THC. Responding to the press, he cited an example of a man in Oregon contracting a vaping lung injury, despite purchasing from a legal, regulated state dispensary.

Baker’s press office has not responded to The Gatepost’s request for comment.

[Editor’s Note: The vaping illness outbreak is a developing story. Details may be subject to change as more information is discovered. Additionally, to protect their identity and privacy, a student in this article was granted anonymity.]