A task force appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy to deliver a quick set of recommendations on how New Jersey should respond to a spike of health concerns related to vaping heard more than three hours of testimony Tuesday, with the fate of flavored e-cigarette products often center stage.

“We really support the ban on flavoring because we find that about 80% of kids start using vape products because of the flavoring,” said Diane Litterer, chief executive officer and executive director of the New Jersey Prevention Network.

Donna Moreen, a nurse at South Brunswick High School, prefers a complete ban on e-cigarettes but, short of that, one on flavored water vapes.

“At least until we find out what the ingredients are in this, how could we have this product out on the street when we don’t even know what’s in it?” Moreen said.

Eric Saat, an owner of Pure Puff Vapor Supply in West Berlin, said it is known what is in regulated electronic cigarette products and that the health problems appear to be cause by bad cartridges with THC, which is derived from cannabis.

“Vaping’s been pretty big since 2010. We haven’t had an epidemic. This is the first time you’re hearing about this,” Saat said.

Thousands of people will seek black-market products if flavors are banned, vaping advocates warned.

“I am terrified at the thought of possibly having to go back to cigarettes with the loss of flavors,” Ed Bowkley said. “And if I go back to cigarettes, there’s no shadow of a doubt that I will die. If you want my death on your conscience, please feel free to ban flavors.”

“A ban would not stop people from acquiring flavors. In fact, it would drive it underground,” Tristan Thompson said. “It wouldn’t push people back to smoking, it would create a black market that nobody could ever anticipate. One that would be beyond control. You’d be out of the reach of age checks and verification. You’d be out of the reach of any kind of regulatory environment. It would be a disaster.”

The task force’s recommendations are due to Murphy in about a week, by Oct. 3.

Acting Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said nine vaping-related lung illnesses have been confirmed in New Jersey. Another 34 reports are under investigation, 10 more than a week ago.

“To date, a causative agent has not been determined,” Persichilli said.

Rutgers University chemistry professor Gene Hall said he tested the molecular compounds of vaping devices and that the problem may be a rubber gasket at the bottom of the cartridge.

“So you may be getting your lungs filled with silicone rubber,” Hall said.

Vape shop owner Nick Callister said the tested items Hall showed the task force included counterfeit Juul pods, not strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration like those sold in his shop. He said the health benefits of vaping are real.

“My health has improved. I no longer smell like a house on fire. I don’t have to do anything illegal to get my product,” Callister said. “Please do not make this any more difficult to get because I would still be a smoker if it wasn’t for this technology.”

Rather than ban flavors, vape store owners argued, the state should ban online sales that are easily accessed by teens; ban sales in convenience stores and gas stations; and fine people who buy if they are under the age of 21.

“If they came in, as a shop owner I get a fine. My employee gets a fine,” said Bonnie Butz. “This child willingly and knowingly came into my shop and committed a crime. Where’s the fine for them? And if they don’t have the money to pay it, their parent can. Hit the parent in the pocket, maybe they’ll get their kid under control.”

Cathleen Bennett, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Hospital Association, said more should be done to support law enforcement crackdowns on black market vaping products, as well as restrictions on marketing to youth and prohibiting e-cigarette sales at pharmacies.

“Make no bones about it, vaping is creating addiction in a new generation, with untold health effects in the years to come,” Bennett said.

Bennett said the number of vaping-related illnesses in New Jersey hospitals are on pace to more than double between 2017 and 2019, projected to reach 16,000 cases by the end of the year.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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