BOSTON -- With tough new restrictions on flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco products taking shape, a statewide ban on nicotine vaping products could be lifted as early as next week.
The move follows Gov. Charlie Baker's approval of a bill that outlaws sales of flavored vaping products, including menthol and mint-flavored cigarettes, limits the nicotine content of vape pods and imposes a 75% excise tax on the wholesale price of e-cigarettes.
Baker signed the bill last Wednesday, following its earlier passage in the House of Representatives and Senate.
The new law specifically restricts sales of flavored vape and tobacco products to private smoking bars such as cigar bars and hookah lounges, where they must be consumed on-site.
Baker said the state will lift a temporary ban on nicotine vaping products on Dec. 11 -- two weeks ahead of schedule -- when the state Public Health Council is expected to approve new statewide regulations. He said the yet-to-be-released vaping rules will "ensure risks are known to consumers" and that "sellers are not skirting the new law and selling to kids."
The changes won't affect marijuana-infused vaping products, which have been quarantined by state regulators. The Cannabis Control Commission took steps to keep the products off dispensary shelves following a judge's ruling that the Department of Public Health didn't have the authority to ban the sale of medical marijuana vaping products.
Baker imposed the short-term ban on vape product sales on Sept. 24 in response to a rash of illnesses and deaths linked to vaping that has sickened 2,300 people and killed 47, including three people in Massachusetts.
The ban was challenged in court and a state judge ordered Baker to file an emergency order in order to keep the restrictions in place until Dec. 24.
Health officials have defended the temporary ban as necessary to protect the public. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders told reporters at last Wednesday's bill signing that it was important to leave the blanket ban in place for another two weeks to "develop regulations that provide clarity and explicit guidance to local law enforcement and boards of health, consumers and retailers."
Last year, the state raised the legal age to buy e-cigarettes from 18 to 21, expanded the workplace smoking ban to include e-cigarettes, and barred pharmacies from selling them.
Public health advocates pushed for the latest rules amid concerns that a generation of teenagers is getting hooked on e-cigarettes with flavors such as bubblegum, mint and mango.
"Keeping flavored tobacco products off the shelves here is an epic win for our kids, because it helps protect future generations from starting on the path to a lifetime of tobacco addiction," said Marc Hymovitz, Massachusetts director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. "Coupling this action with a price increase on e-cigarettes and improved access to cessation services sets Massachusetts apart with a comprehensive tobacco control program that proudly outpaces the rest of the nation."
But vaping industry groups say the restrictions will actually jeopardize public health by driving nicotine users to unsafe, unregulated markets, if they don't send them back to smoking traditional cigarettes.
"They're either going to go to cross state lines, go to the black or gray markets, or turn back to cigarettes," said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association.
Even when the state allows vaping products to be sold again, the damage has already been done to small businesses owners that were forced to close their retail operations, he said.
And consumers can head up to New Hampshire, Conley said, which still allows flavored vaping products and tobacco and where the products are taxed at a lower rate than Massachusetts.
"This change means little to nothing for Massachusetts vape shops and consumers, as the vast majority of adult ex-smokers who vape do not want to use tobacco flavors," he said. "You'll see a limited number of stores attempt to reopen, but by and large the era of vape shops in Massachusetts is over because more than 90% of the liquids they sold are now illegal."
Conley added that as the new rules go into effect adult vapers in Massachusetts "should do whatever it takes to remain smoke-free, including violating unjust laws."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Eagle-Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.