We’re now about three weeks into Gov. Charlie Baker’s unilateral four-month vape ban. How did we get here? It’s really not clear. Very little information has come out of the Governor’s office to justify what has appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction to recent reports that vaping may be linked to lung illnesses.
While this scare did not start in Massachusetts, the Bay State has responded most forcefully to news that more than 1,000 people have been hospitalized, apparently due to vaping. Baker on Sept. 24 announced a four-month ban on vaping products in the state, but largely has not clarified the state’s thinking on what will be accomplished in that time.
Meanwhile, those addicted to nicotine may be pushed to products like cigarettes we know to be extremely harmful to health. And those who wish to buy vaping marijuana products may be pushed to the black market, where unregulated vaping products may be even more dangerous than those sold at sanctioned stores.
We’re not dealing with ebola here. While this is a serious issue, and nearly 30 people appear to have died nationwide in connection with vaping, the appropriate steps are a strong education campaign and a stark warning from state officials about the potential dangers of vaping products. We need more information — not arbitrary authoritarian action.
This isn’t the first instance of overreaction on the part of Massachusetts’ executive office, nor is Baker the first one to employ it. In one of the most notorious examples, Gov. Deval Patrick in 2013 authorized a lockdown of the entire city of Boston, as well as some adjacent neighborhoods, in a failed effort to locate now-convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Soon after the ban was lifted, residents able to go back outside located Tsarnaev hiding in their boat.
This is how, in 2014, Washington Post opinion writer Radley Balko characterized the lockdown: “In Boston, 19,000 National Guard troops moved into an American city, not to put down a civil uprising, quell riots or dispel an insurrection, but to search for a single man. Armored vehicles motored up and down neighborhoods. Innocent people were confronted in their homes at gunpoint or had guns pointed at them for merely peering through the curtains of their own windows.”
In both 2013 and 2015, under Governors Patrick and Baker, governor-imposed driving bans for “severe winter weather” have affected the state. In the instance in 2015, the amount of snow in Western Mass wound up being underwhelming compared to the “historic” snowfall predicted. Yet the driving ban remained, along with its threat of a fine and jail time for those who broke it.
Massachusetts governors need to rethink their propensity to solve problems with these unilateral and authoritarian actions. In most cases — and likely in our current situation — the facts on the ground do not warrant taking people’s freedoms away.
At the same time, I’m not at all sympathetic to the vaping industry at large, which has shown itself to be completely untrustworthy with regard to advertising to minors. I fully support Attorney General Maura Healey’s suits against certain vaping retailers who have broken laws by targeting young people and then failing to verify customers’ ages. Healey is working with lawmakers to come up with a plan to ban flavored tobacco products, an appropriate discussion to have before the state Legislature, who can vote on the proposal. If that comes to the ballot, I might even vote for such a measure.
We live in a democratic society. This vaping health scare does not rise to the level to have our rights taken away.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.