Local health officials fan out to ensure state's vaping-product ban enforced

Gov. Charlie Baker's temporary ban on vaping products in Massachusetts came amid concern about a vaping-associated lung disease that has sickened hundreds and killed 13 around the country.

When Gov. Charlie Baker declared a public health emergency Tuesday and announced a temporary ban on vaping products, it came as a surprise to local boards of health charged with enforcing the new regulations.

Immediately, town employees hit the streets to educate local store clerks about the ban and ensure that the devices and their cartridges were off their shelves.

"I have never in my almost 20 years doing this ... seen something come out of this level of government like this," said James Wilusz, who runs the Tobacco Awareness Program of the Berkshires through the Tri-Town Health Department. "All I was thinking was, how are all these towns going to get this information out and enforce this in time?"

When Wilusz and other inspectors arrived at the stores, though, they found that most already had emptied their inventories of the products.

"I was quite pleased and somewhat impressed," he said.

Baker's move came amid a concern about a vaping-associated lung disease that has sickened hundreds and killed 13 around the country. As public health officials work to identify the cause, Baker ordered bricks-and-mortar retailers to immediately halt the sale of products and asked vape companies to exclude sales from Massachusetts shipping addresses.

The Cannabis Control Commission has issued notices to licensees, patients and clinicians to ensure that they are aware of the public health emergency.

In Pittsfield, there are 48 stores that are licensed to sell vaping products, but several of them don't, according to Public Health Director Gina Armstrong.

"Our team of inspectors went to each store and had conversations and took a look at how they were progressing at taking those products off shelves," Armstrong said. "Everyone was already aware, and they had already taken action. There was a real willingness to comply."

By going store to store, though, the board of health learned that clerks want to provide their customers with smoking-cessation information, as some people use the vaping devices as alternatives to smoking cigarettes, Armstrong said.

City employees will be returning to some of the stores to provide flyers and other materials with tobacco-cessation information.

The Board of Health in Great Barrington, which has about a dozen stores licensed to sell tobacco and cannabis vaping products in town, contacted each merchant, letting them know about the ban, a statement from the town said.

"As some people rely on vaping products to help with smoking cessation, Massachusetts residents can now receive free nicotine replacement products [such as Nicorette gum or nicotine patches] through their insurance programs without a prior prescription," the statement said.

While investigators across the country work to ferret out the specific chemicals that have prompted the illnesses and deaths, some critics of Baker's ban are concerned that it will push people toward buying illicit black-market products with unknown ingredients.

"I certainly hope not," Armstrong said. "I'm hoping that because the ban includes online sales, that will make that less likely."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.