Irfan Rahman’s laboratory sits at the end of a long hallway on the third floor of the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry.
Inside, Rahman and a team of researchers take apart e-cigarettes. They analyze the liquids that the devices turn into inhalable vapors in an effort to figure out exactly what those vapors are made of.
The lab’s work has taken on growing importance as the number of deaths and injuries attributed to e-cigarettes across the country continues to rise.
“We are the national leaders in this research,” Rahman said. “We are doing work here that can save lives. These are very, very grave health problems.”
But New York state’s action to ban flavored e-cigarettes last week threw their ability to do that research into question.
The state’s emergency regulations ban possession of flavored e-cigarette liquids, with no exemption for research.
URMC shares a $19 million federal grant with the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo that funds the institutions’ research into e-cigarettes. It’s an emerging field that investigators said is designed around questions of how flavored tobacco products affect the body and mind.
The realization that the rules did not carve out an exception for researchers led the CEOs of Roswell Park and URMC to send a joint letter to Howard Zucker, the commissioner of the state health department, urging him to allow their research to continue.
“This is the first ever federally funded research to look at flavored tobacco in such a comprehensive and systematic way,” the CEOs wrote. “The outcomes of these studies will have significant implications for public health nationally.”
In the days after the CEOs sent their letter to the state health department, leaders from the research teams at Roswell Park and URMC met in Buffalo with representatives from federal agencies including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute. The researchers outlined their concerns that New York’s new regulations would cut off their ability to investigate e-cigarettes under their federal grant.
The conference was routine and scheduled prior to the state’s ban on possessing e-cigarettes, but discussion about the ban and its lack of a research exemption was added to the agenda, according to attendees.
The federal agencies were in a tough position, Rahman said, because they were funding research in New York that might have just been banned under the state’s new rules.
Underscoring the confusion caused by the new regulations, a spokesperson for the National Cancer Institute said “we do not know at this time” how the rules will affect their research.
The New York state health department offered some clarification Wednesday when spokesperson Jill Montag wrote in an email to WXXI News that the regulations apply “to retailers, distributors and manufacturers, not to accredited research institutions,” though neither the word “accredited” nor the phrase “research institutions” appears anywhere in the text of the rules.
“The health department is responsible for enforcing the ban,” Montag said in a subsequent phone call, explaining that the department’s interpretation of the regulation excludes research institutions from the ban.
Roswell Park spokesperson Annie Deck-Miller said researchers there expect the state will develop an exemption for possession of e-cigarette products used in research, and URMC communications chief Chip Partner said state officials “have made clear in unofficial communications that the ban is intended to restrict the commercial sale of flavored e-cigarettes, not scientific studies or other research.”
But Rahman said he has yet to receive any official guidance from the state.
“That makes it hard,” he said. “I don’t know what we are going to do.”
The confusion has also led to researchers stocking up on e-cigarette products while they are still available to the public.
Rahman shops local for his lab. He buys flavored e-cigarette liquids from retailers in and around Rochester to break them down and examine their toxicity.
If the exemption does not come through, Rahman said, he may not be able to buy the products that he needs for his research, and he may have to surrender what he already has. So earlier this week, after work, Rahman drove to a half-dozen vape shops in Monroe County to buy whatever they had in stock.
“It’s constantly changing,” Rahman said. “This is a very quickly moving field. We need to stay up-to-date.”
A Monroe County survey of public school students found 45% of high school seniors said they'd used vape products. Nearly a third said they'd used them in the last month.
At least eight people nationwide have died of illnesses or lung injuries that federal authorities have connected to vaping, with hundreds falling ill over the past months. Investigators are still trying to figure out exactly what is causing the deaths, but they suspect illicit marijuana-laced products, not flavored e-cigarettes.
Still, researchers that WXXI News spoke with don’t believe that flavored e-cigarettes are safe. But they do say they might not be as lethal as conventional cigarettes or the black-market e-cigarettes that they have linked to the hospitalizations of dozens of people in western and central New York.
The state’s regulations “have the unintended consequence of cutting off necessary materials” to research e-cigarettes at a time when that research “is more important than ever,” the CEOs of Roswell Park and URMC wrote in their letter to the state health department.