Amid vaping-related illness outbreak, could New Jersey ban flavored e-cigarettes?

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he is “open-minded” to a statewide ban on flavored e-cigarettes after Michigan made a similar move this week.

Vaping liquid in a variety of flavors (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Vaping liquid in a variety of flavors (Emma Lee/WHYY)

New Jersey is eyeing a crackdown on flavored e-cigarettes, which have been associated with a recent string of pulmonary illnesses across the country and are frequently blamed for ensnaring children and young adults into an addictive habit.

During the WHYY’s “Ask Governor Murphy” call-in show Wednesday night, a caller asked Gov. Phil Murphy what he thought about Michigan’s ban on flavored e-cigarettes.

“I like that, I have to say. [My] first reaction is it’s something … we should look at,” Murphy said.

E-cigarettes heat liquid that typically contains nicotine and often is flavored. They enable users to exhale a cloud of vapor, hence the term “vaping.” Health experts do not fully understand the health risks of vaping, but they say that nicotine remains addictive and that some chemicals used in e-cigarettes could harm a user’s lungs.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“It’s become I think a pervasive, real health challenge, particularly for teens and young folks. And the flavored part of it drives me crazy, because it’s clearly — everyone has their eyes open as to what they’re doing,” Murphy added. “But at first blush, I’d be open-minded to that. I think that sounds like it’s got some merit.”

The public discussion around e-cigarettes gained new life in the last few weeks amid a string of mysterious illnesses associated with vaping that have been reported in 25 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has not yet identified the cause of the outbreak.

There are two confirmed cases in New Jersey and another 13 cases under investigation, and the patients range in age from 17 to 45 years old, according to the state Department of Health.

But e-cigarette proponents suggest that vaping is safer than smoking, and that there are ways to reduce youth usage without banning flavored e-cigarettes altogether.

“I think the bigger culprit is access,” said Danish Iqbal, CEO of the e-cigarette wholesaler Medusa Distribution. “There are a lot of bad actors, including online websites that didn’t have great age verification, that allowed people to get access to these things that were always meant to be adult products.”

Iqbal also suggested that the vaping-related illnesses plaguing the U.S. are not the fault of the e-cigarettes themselves, but rather the liquid used. Although the CDC has urged the public not to buy e-cigarettes or THC cartridges “off the street,” the government has yet to determine the cause of the illnesses.

Still, anti-smoking advocates praised Murphy’s position. Karen Blumenfeld, executive director of New Jersey Global Advisors on Smokefree Policy (NJ GASP), said she applauds any effort to discourage the use of e-cigarettes.

“This is, like cigarettes, a product that when used as intended can harm you,” she said.

Several New Jersey Democrats introduced legislation to ban flavored e-cigarettes (S3265/A3178) last year, but it has not yet received a hearing.

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unilaterally outlawed flavored e-cigarettes through emergency rules, claiming she did not need legislative approval to deal with a public health crisis.

It is not clear if Murphy has the power to take similar action in New Jersey or whether he is even considering a ban without legislative approval. Matt Saidel, a spokesman for the governor, declined to comment.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal