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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The New Mexico Department of Health ordered Thursday that warning labels be affixed to all cannabis vaping products, after 14 people statewide recently have been hospitalized with vaping-related lung ailments.
With the order, New Mexico becomes the latest state to take action in response to the growing health scare surrounding electronic cigarettes. However, state health officials stopped short of issuing a ban on all vaping products – as Massachusetts has done.
And the New Mexico Health Department did not require labels on nicotine vaping products.
But in addition to ordering warning labels, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel did issue a health advisory urging New Mexicans to stop all forms of vaping until further research can be conducted.
“Vaping lung-related injuries is uncharted territory in public health, and it is important that residents know the health risks if they make the choice to continue using any vaping products,” Kunkel said in a statement.
She also said vaping poses health risks regardless of whether the product includes THC, the active ingredient found in marijuana, or nicotine.
However, all but one of the cases statewide involve cannabis-related vaping, a department spokesman said.
Of the 14 vaping-related hospitalizations in New Mexico, six are individuals ages 21 or younger, according to the Department of Health. Of those six, three are ages 13 to 17.
Although recreational cannabis use is not legal in New Mexico, the state had 77,168 patients enrolled in its medical cannabis program as of last month.
Health Department Deputy Secretary Abinash Achrekar said the agency, which also runs the medical cannabis program, decided against issuing a ban on vaping products as it continues to monitor the latest national and state trends.
He said the Department of Health could take additional steps to address vaping use in coming months, though he declined to say what specific actions might be under consideration.
“We want to be very, very cautious as we move forward,” Achrekar told the Journal.
Electronic cigarettes are typically used to heat a nicotine or THC solution – sometimes flavored like candy, cereal or fruit – to produce a vapor that’s inhaled.
Nationally, the number of vaping-related illnesses has surpassed 1,000 since the first case, in March, and U.S. health officials said Thursday that there are no signs the outbreak is slowing, according to The Associated Press.
The count includes 18 deaths in 15 states, and only two states – Alaska and New Hampshire – have not reported any vaping-related illnesses.
Doctors say the illnesses resemble an inhalation injury. Symptoms reportedly include severe shortness of breath, fatigue and chest pain.
The growing health concerns surrounding e-cigarette use have prompted New York and several other states to ban flavored vaping products. The vaping industry has responded by filing lawsuits and criticizing the bans as overzealous and harmful to adults who see e-cigarettes as less harmful than traditional cigarettes and as a way to curb smoking.
In New Mexico, Attorney General Hector Balderas also recently issued an advisory on the dangers of vaping, and the AG’s Office is investigating e-cigarette companies over their marketing practices to minors.
Already this year, New Mexico has imposed new restrictions on vaping indoors – the use of vaping products is now banned in movie theaters, restaurants and other public places – and enacted a new tax on the liquid used in e-cigarettes.
However, proposals to ban flavored nicotine solutions – which critics say make it more attractive to young people – and to raise the purchasing age on e-cigarettes and tobacco products from 18 to 21 failed during this year’s legislative session.
The order that New Mexico medical marijuana producers affix a warning label to all cannabis-derived vaping pens took effect immediately.
Under the Health Department’s order, mandatory warning labels must say that vaping cannabis products has been associated with “cases of severe lung injury, leading to difficulty breathing, hospitalization, and even death.”
Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said members of the trade group are concerned about the escalating health crisis and will comply with the order.
“Chamber members are committed to working with the Department of Health to ensure that medical patients continue to have access to safe, quality medicine, and that patients are well-informed of any risks, and we fully support DOH’s new labeling requirements on vaping products,” Lewinger said.
He also said the trade group commends Kunkel for clarifying that the state is not imposing a ban on vaping products, as such an action could drive patients to the black market, where products are not subject to safety requirements.
According to a New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency survey, about 25% of New Mexico high school students used e-cigarettes in 2017, up from 9% in 2013. In addition, about 10% of middle school students reported having vaped.
“We do understand there’s a growing epidemic when it comes to use of these vaping products,” Achrekar said.