In a laboratory at the end of a long hallway on the third floor of the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, a team of researchers dissects e-cigarettes.
Their goal is to figure out exactly what chemicals make up the liquids that the devices turn into an inhalable vapor.
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,” researcher Irfan Rahman said. “We are doing work here that can save lives. These are very, very grave health problems.”
But their ability to do that work was thrown into question by New York’s emergency regulations ban on the possession of flavored e-cigarettes, which, as written, made no exceptions for researchers.
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 aims to discern 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 URMC and Roswell Park to send a joint letter to Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, 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.
They voiced their concerns that the new regulations would inhibit their ability to investigate e-cigarettes under their federal grant.
Underscoring their confusion, a spokesperson for the National Cancer Institute said “we do not know at this time” how the rules will affect their research.
A state Health Department spokesperson said the agency’s attorneys have since responded to the CEOs in writing, clarifying that researchers are exempt from the ban. The agency would not provide a copy of the letter.
The temporary confusion led to researchers stocking up on e-cigarette products while they were still available to the public. Health officials have anticipated enforcing the ban next week.
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.
After a recent work day, Rahman visited 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.”
Use of e-cigarettes among youths has risen 160 percent in New York state over the last five years, according to the state Health Department.
A Monroe County survey of public school students found 45 percent 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 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 have been linked to the hospitalizations of dozens of people in western and central New York.
Brett Dahlberg is a reporter at CITY’s media partner WXXI News.
This story has been updated.