Gov. Phil Murphy and his Democratic allies are rushing to enact restrictions on e-cigarettes before the Legislature’s term ends and newly elected senators and Assembly members take office in 2020. They are also considering pushing through legal marijuana legislation in the lame-duck session.
Both are inappropriate for the victory Murphy wants before year’s end to distract from losses in this month’s election. Recent developments on these issues show that the understanding needed for effective regulation is just developing and that Murphy’s reasoning is misguided and potentially harmful.
Last week, the Senate Health Committee advanced a bill that would outlaw the sale and distribution of flavored e-cigarettes in response to the governor’s push.
Murphy said he wants to ban flavored e-cigarettes in response to nationwide concern over mysterious lung illnesses linked to vaping.
That outbreak is a tragedy. At least 40 people have died and more than 2,000 have been sickened across America. But the right response to a mysterious illness is to understand it enough to identify the actions that will counter it.
Earlier this month, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced what it called a breakthrough on the vaping illness. All 29 samples from the lungs of those with the illness found vitamin E oil, which is used to dilute the active ingredient of marijuana, THC, when made into a vaping liquid. Also importantly, THC was found in samples from three patients who had said they hadn’t used any products containing THC, showing that self-reporting of marijuana use isn’t reliable.
CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat said the evidence points primarily to the illness being connected with THC oils, since vitamin E oils haven’t been found in any nicotine vaping products. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration recommended that people immediately stop vaping THC-containing products.
So Murphy is wrong to believe that bans on nicotine e-cigarettes are a rational response to the vaping illness. The harm seems to be coming from marijuana vaping products that have arisen with the legalization of marijuana for pleasure in several states.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who until a few months ago was FDA commissioner, said that in the absence of federal marijuana enforcement and regulation, “weak state bodies sanction the adoption of unsafe practices such as vaping concentrates, while allowing an illegal market in cannabis to flourish.”
As it happens, Murphy and Democratic legislative leaders want to push for marijuana legalization during the lame duck session as well.
The CDC already found that marijuana is a harmful drug and addictive for 1 in 10 users, and 1 in 6 who begin using before adulthood. The National Academy of Sciences already found that long-term marijuana use can have permanent effects on the developing brains of adolescents and young adults — impairing learning, memory and attention.
Now it’s apparent that the vast black market encouraged by widespread legalization and acceptance of recreational marijuana will haave harmful, even lethal outcomes.
President Trump, like Murphy, also has said he wants to ban flavored e-cigarettes to try to counter their use by teenagers. That’s a worthy goal and the nation should match New Jersey’s requirement that e-cigarette buyers be at least 21. But the effectiveness of bans for this purpose also isn’t yet strongly supported by research.
Just this month, a study published in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research found that vaping doesn’t increase the chance of teens starting to smoke. What does increase the likelihood of smoking are risk factors such as drinking alcohol and other smokers in the family, and if those factors are present teens are more likely to start vaping too. The study’s lead author, Arielle Selya of Sanford Health, said, “It’s really important to hold off on making policies on e-cigarettes until we have a more solid understanding of its effects.”
Murphy and the Legislature should hold off on their lame-duck drives to ban vaping products and to legalize marijuana.
More studies are in the works to help understand the relationship between nicotine e-cigarettes and tobacco smoking. Misguided vaping restrictions might drive people to smoke regular cigarettes, which still cause nearly half a million deaths a year. Or they might ignite a black market with risky unregulated products.
Illnesses and deaths this year apparently from THC vaping may only be the beginning of new dangers to public health from widespread use of powerful modern forms of marijuana.
Until these risks to society are better understood, New Jersey’s leaders can’t make the science-based policies that New Jersey residents need to stay safe.