With the rash of media stories over the last few weeks involving e-cigarette users being hospitalized with severe respiratory illnesses, it’s safe to say that both the vaping and cannabis industries are, understandably, on edge.
And with a sixth person confirmed dead from a vaping-related condition earlier this week, the situation is only getting worse. A number of influential organizations have weighed in, new emergency laws have been passed in certain jurisdictions, and the situation has gone from bad to bordering on hysteria.
As is the case with most media panics, however, a number of facts have been conveniently omitted, and the public has been left with more questions than answers.
In an attempt to clarify the situation, here’s what you need to know about the recent vape epidemic – who’s involved, what’s really going on with these deaths, and, most importantly, how this is impacting both cannabis users and the industry at large.
The current panic surrounding “vape death” began a few weeks ago. On August 23rd, the Illinois Department of Public Health confirmed that, after a number of e-cigarette users had been admitted to hospital with respiratory complications, and an adult patient had died.
The story set off an explosion of similar reports, all involving e-cigarette and vape users across the US reporting respiratory illnesses. On Wednesday, September 4th, Oregon public health officials reported that a patient who had recently died from complications had been vaping cannabis oil from a local dispensary prior to death. Just this week, a sixth person has been pronounced dead as a result of a lung disease “related to vaping”.
While the exact numbers are up for debate, the CDC estimates over 450 cases of possible lung illness are connected with the use of these products.
What’s Really Going On?
With the backlash against vaping in full swing, it’s important to take a step back, unpack these events and try to figure out not only what’s really going on, but why it’s happening now. As many have pointed out, these products have been on the market for years – why is it we’re only now seeing an “epidemic” of illnesses and deaths?
The most important question to be asking in all of this is what exactly those affected were actually consuming.
In almost all of the cases reported, the answer is that they were vaping black market products – the majority of them illicit cannabis oils.
While the exact ingredient in these oils that’s causing the problem is still unknown, a number of health officials and industry insiders have speculated that the culprit may be vitamin E acetate. Commonly used in skin care products like creams and shampoos, vitamin E oil can be applied topically, and comes with a number of moisturizing and anti-aging benefits.
The problem with vitamin E oil is that, while it may be great for the skin, it’s toxic when inhaled in the lungs. In recent years, a number of underground manufacturers have been using it as a thickening agent in their vape liquids.
Despite the fact that the issue appears to have little to do with legal products, the events have sparked a massive outcry from various officials and provoked a serious backlash. In the wake of the fiasco, the state of Michigan enacted a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, and the American Medical Association and American Lung Association have both issued warnings to the public to discontinue their use.
And the hysteria hasn’t just been confined to individual states. On Wednesday, President Trump voiced his support for a full ban on flavored vape products, with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announcing that the FDA would begin to take action and remove various products from the market (all of this has lead to #vapeban trending on Twitter)
This isn’t the first time officials have come down on vaping. E-cigarette products have been in use for close to a decade, and in that time a number of organizations have voiced their strong opposition to them.
One of the biggest companies currently caught in the backlash is Juul. On Monday the FDA issued a warning letter to the company regarding its marketing, which they believe illegally makes the claim that Juul’s products are a healthier alternative to smoking.
What This Means For Cannabis Users
While the vaping industry may be on blast as a result of these events, much of the focus as the story has unfolded has turned to cannabis.
But despite the panic, the fact that most of these cases involved black market products needs to be reiterated. In a post by Dr. Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health, compelling figures were presented demonstrating that almost all the cases in California, New Mexico and Wisconsin involved THC products – and most of those products were from unlicensed sources.
It’s also worth pointing out that many of these cases appear to be concentrated in prohibitionist states, and are not associated with users purchasing from a licensed dispensary.
For cannabis users who do vape, these incidents have underscored the importance of buying from legal sources and avoiding the underground market (regardless of the price discrepancy).
What This Means The Cannabis Industry
The fallout from the vape crisis could potentially have serious consequences for the cannabis industry, and we’ve already seen shops in legal states begin to pull products off their shelves.
Oregon has been hit particularly hard. The reported death in the state is one of the few cases where the patient purchased their oil from a legal dispensary prior to death. While it doesn’t necessarily mean that the death was caused by that particular product, it definitely doesn’t bode well for a new industry fighting an uphill battle against prevailing stigmas.
While there’s no doubt that the vast majority of the blame for the crisis should be laid at the feet of the black market, cannabis professionals are no doubt aware that public perception is unlikely to be on their side, particularly as the outcry becomes more and more hysterical.
On Wednesday, the Cannabis Trade Federation officially responded. In an official statement, the CTF voiced its support for a full investigation, cautioned users to avoid the illicit market, encouraged its members to support and comply with state and CDC investigations into their products, and supported efforts for further education.
Along with edibles and infused products, vaping represents a large and growing segment of the market. And while further regulations may very well be needed to keep toxic ingredients out of them, a large scale federal crackdown could have massive consequences for an industry that’s finally beginning to find its footing.
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