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Growing number of vaping illnesses prompt state governments to look to legislation

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Sept. 16 to establish a $20 million public awareness campaign to educate people on the perils of vaping cannabis and nicotine products. The decision follows an increase in cases of vaping-related lung illnesses. (Kanishka Mehra/Assistant Photo editor)

Public officials across the United States are now considering legislative action as a possible solution to vaping-related illnesses.

The Trump administration said it would ban sales of most flavored e-cigarette brands, according to a New York Times article published Sept. 11. The decision was catalyzed by the increase in cases of vaping-related lung illnesses, which has now resulted in 18 deaths in 15 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Sept. 16 to restrict the growing number of vaping-related cases. According to a press release from Newsom’s office, the order directed the California Department of Public Health to establish a $20 million public awareness campaign to educate people on the perils of vaping cannabis and nicotine products.

Newsom’s executive order is three-pronged. According to the press release, the executive order consists of a vaping awareness campaign, increased regulation of e-cigarettes and the establishment of warning signs about the risks of vaping on advertisements and at retailers where vape products are sold.

Newsom also signed Senate Bill 39, which imposes stringent age-verification requirements for tobacco products sold by mail or online, the press release said.

Charles Cannon, a UCLA law professor who currently teaches a class on cannabis law and regulation, said he thinks it is critical for public officials to examine public health data before executing policy in this situation.

“If the data were to show that there was something inherently harmful in the way (vapes) work in general, and it’s supported … That would be one thing,” Cannon said. “Based on what I know, it sounds like it may be more of a problem of black market products causing the health issues. And if that’s the case, you want to target policy to where the problem is.”

[Related: Experts, public officials become increasingly concerned about effects of vaping]

The states of Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and California have undertaken legislative action to combat vaping, while others – including New Jersey, Delaware and Illinois – are considering similar measures, according to a Sept. 25 TIME article. These decisions have also been linked to restricting the use of cannabis-based products.

“While cannabis is illegal at the federal level, states have taken it on themselves to legalize and regulate cannabis within their own borders,” Cannon said.

Certain states have legalized cannabis use through various measures, with a majority of American citizens living in locales where cannabis has been legalized to a certain degree, Cannon added.

“Legalization has been around now for many years,” he said, “I don’t think it’s very likely that cannabis regulations would reverse course. I think that (cannabis) is headed towards national legalization at some point.”

However, Cannon said that there should be more study of both the health benefits and risks of cannabis use. Since cannabis is a complex plant that is consumed in a multitude of ways, problems in one form of consumption shouldn’t affect other ways it is used, he added.

NBC recently commissioned a report of vape products from a licensed cannabis analytical testing lab in Los Angeles called CannaSafe, said Maha Haq, co-founder and president of Cannaclub at UCLA, a student organization that focuses on education and advocacy on the use of cannabis based-products.

“They tested 18 (vape) cartridges, in total, that advertised as THC vapes.” Haq said, “Three of them were from legal dispensaries. Fifteen of them were from the illicit market.”

Thirteen out of the 15 illicit cartridges contained vitamin E acetate, a chemical which is unsafe to smoke and inhale into one’s lungs, Haq said. Vitamin E acetate is suggested to be linked to vape-related illnesses.

According to the NBC article, 10 of the illicit cartridges tested positive for pesticides. Additionally, all contained myclobutanil, a fungicide which turns into hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous chemical compound, when burned.

“You don’t want to be smoking or vaping hydrogen cyanide,” Haq said. “It seems to be that these pesticides and vitamin E acetate has been the culprit behind the epidemic that’s been going on. The only cartridges in this report that passed in all aspects were the three legal products from licensed dispensaries.”

Students typically gravitate towards illicit vape devices since they’re cheaper and easier to access for those under the age of 21, Haq added.

“In order to be safe, you need to get a legal product,” she said. “You’re not going to be safe if you have an illicit product.”

Haq said executive orders will not solve the root of the current crisis, which she thinks is the thriving illicit market.

“If you’re going to ban vapes or products, it’s going to be banning the legal products,” she said “The illicit products are still going to be sold … In Downtown LA, there is a whole block dedicated to illicit vapes and counterfeit cartridges. So although there will be bans implemented, it’s not going to combat the illicit market that is behind all these vape deaths or vaping illnesses.”

If legislation won’t fix the situation, market regulation will, Haq said. Identifying the sources behind the illicit market and shutting them down would be a vital first step, she added.

“All these legal products are not harmful,” Haq said. “They’re not the culprit. (We need to) go after the main ones which are operating from these shops that are unregulated and shut them down.”

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