Opponents fume over Baker vaping ban

Legislation to ban flavored tobacco products the last straw for some

FOR SAFIA JAMIL, the owner of vaping shops in Marlborough and Walpole, the one-two punch of Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency vaping ban and legislation passed this week to ban all flavored tobacco products is likely to be a knockout that puts her out of business. 

Jamil said she has lost “thousands of dollars” because of the vape ban, imposed in late September, but her two stores stayed afloat from cigarette tobacco sales and by laying off employees and reducing one manager’s pay to minimum wage. 

However, when Jamil heard that the Legislature passed a ban of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, a measure that is now on Baker’s desk, she concluded it was time to throw in the towel on Vape City Smoke Shops. “The bill was the last straw and a confirmation that I should close down my stores,” she said Friday, adding that she plans to file for bankruptcy. “I’m probably going to lose my house,” Jamil said.  

Vape City Smoke Shop owner Safia Jamil testifies before Department of Public Health officials. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

Jamil was one of two dozen store owners and vape users who testified at a Department of Public Health hearing on the vape ban.  

The September 24 emergency vaping ban was announced by Baker without warning and was driven by concerns nationally over vaping-related lung illnesses. Since it was put in place, 21 cases of vaping-related illnesses in the state have been reported, including three deaths.  

If Baker signs the flavored vape and tobacco product ban, the prohibition on flavored vaping products would take effect immediately, with the ban on flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, taking effect in June 2020.  

It would be the first statewide ban on menthol cigarettes in the country, and also impose an excise tax of 75 percent on vaping products. Anyone found selling or providing tobacco to minors would be hit with a $1,000 penalty for a first offense.  

Vape shop operators have argued that black market products, not their merchandise, is the cause of the vaping-related illnesses. A recent report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests they might be right. According to the agency, black market vitamin E acetate is now widely suspected of being the culprit, after it was found in lung samples from patients with vaping injuries.   

Many store owners cited the CDC report at Friday’s hearing, arguing they should not be shut down because of illnesses caused by black market vaping products.  

Department of Public Health deputy general counsel Lynn Squillace, and Bureau of Community Health and Prevention policy director Benjamin Kingston hear testimony from vape store owners. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

Craig Rourke of Rourke Law Office, represents six clients involved in two lawsuits in state and federal court over the vape ban, including the one before Wilkins. He says that smaller operators have lost $250,000 to $400,000 in sales. He said one large operator, Vapor Zone, which had four stores, has seen $4 million in lost sales and laid off all 11 of its employees.  

Michael Siegal, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health, testified that the ban on e-cigarettes is “no longer justified” in light of the CDC report. “There is simply no evidence that these products are causing the outbreak, and there is incontrovertible evidence that vitamin E acetate oil, or some chemical contained in that oil” – found only in black market marijuana vape cartridges — “is now implicated as the culprit,” he said.  

The state’s Cannabis Control Commission has sought more information on the state’s vaping-related illnesses and whether there is any connection to the marijuana products it oversees. Commission chairman Steven Hoffman testified at the hearing that public health officials have yet to turn over data on what products appear to be linked to the cases of vaping-related illnesses in the state.  

“We are here today to follow up on our request to share with us whether you have collected any evidence implicating regulated THC products, and if so, which products and where they were purchased, in order to inform our regulations,” he said.  

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The department did not respond to questions following the hearing about whether it plans to release this information.  

The hearing was set into motion when Suffolk Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins ruled that the Baker administration must reissue the vape ban as an emergency regulation approved by the Department of Public Healthwhich triggers a required public hearing.