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Cuomo continues warning on vaping, says health department issuing subpoenas to 3 companies

Governor Cuomo's office
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, speaks in New York City Monday

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state health department are continuing to urge New Yorkers to refrain from using any vaping products while an investigation continues into the cause of a mysterious vaping-related lung ailment that has now sickened 41 New Yorkers. 

The governor is making the recommendation after reports of about 500 cases of the disease nationwide and five deaths. It appears to be related to vaping black-market cannabis products with THC that also contain vitamin E oil, which is harmful when inhaled.

But no one knows for sure, and Cuomo, speaking in New York City on Monday, is urging caution.

“This is a frightening public health phenomenon,” Cuomo said. “And common sense says if you don’t know what you are smoking, don’t smoke it.”

Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, is also asking patients in the state’s medical marijuana program to consult with their health care providers on whether they can use alternatives to vaping products while the investigation continues.

Zucker said the department is looking into possible causes of the illness, and is examining 13 samples from New Yorkers who have developed the disease. He said that in all of the cases, vitamin E oil was present.

The department will issue subpoenas to three companies that manufacture the filler substances used in THC vaping products. The companies are Honey Cut Diluting Agent by Honey Cut Labs LLC in Santa Monica, California; Uber Thick by Floraplex Terpenes in Ypsilanti, Michigan; and Pure Diluent by Mass Terpenes in Amherst, Massachusetts. Cuomo says more companies could also face subpoenas as the probe continues. 

Also, all of the state’s vaping retail stores will be required to post a warning signs on shop windows, saying vaping can cause death.

Zucker also said if you have vaped recently and have symptoms including shortness of breath, chest pains, cough, headache, nausea and vomiting, you should seek medical attention.

“You really should see your doctor if you are using a vaping product,” Zucker said.  

But representatives of the vaping industry in New York say the state’s warning is going too far.

Spike Babaian is on the board of the New York State Vapor Association, and is an owner of four electronic cigarette stores in New York City. She said the majority of people who vape nicotine products are trying to avoid combustible cigarettes, which they believe are more harmful to their health. She said telling them to stop vaping is “irresponsible.” 

“They are not using them as a fun device. They are using them as an option instead of smoking cigarettes,” said Babaian. “And most of them, if not using an e-cigarette, will return to smoking. And we know what that results in.”

She said many who vape have tried nicotine patches or gum to wean themselves from smoking, but have found those products don’t work for them.  

The e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, but they do contain some of the same chemicals in regular cigarettes that have been found to be harmful, including formaldehyde.

A National Institutes of Health study found that e-cigarette vapor could cause DNA mutations in mice.

E-cigarettes are relatively new, so there are no long-term studies showing whether vaping is less harmful than smoking.  

The Centers for Disease Control is also recommending that people avoid all vaping products for now. But the federal Food and Drug Administration said that people should only avoid vaping the cannabis/THC products.  

Babaian said the state’s warning should be more like the FDA’s.  

“Don’t use street-bought marijuana THC cartridges because they are not tested,” Babaian said.

She said the only legitimate way to obtain the THC vaping projects in New York is by getting a medical marijuana card and going to a licensed dispensary.

“If you don’t have a condition that requires it, why are you using an illegal product that puts your life at risk?” she asked. 

Later in the day, Babaian responded to the warning sign requirement, saying in a statement that she is not speaking for the vaping industry organization, but about her own shops: “I will never post that sign in any of my shops. Unless the sign clarifies vaping 'what' substance can cause illness and death, it will never go in my shops. I do not lie to my customers.”

Zucker said for now, he’s urging the broader ban and wants to “err on the side of caution” until more is known. 

Cuomo said he’s not ruling out a temporary ban of all e-cigarettes, but admitted it would be difficult to enforce because the products are legal under federal law.

The governor also said that in the 2020 legislative session, he’ll introduce a bill to ban flavored e-cigarettes.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.