Clearing Up Cannabis Vape Concerns

Clearing Up Cannabis Vape Concerns

What Cannabis Vape Manufacturers and Consumers Need To Know About The Vaping “Epidemic”

What happened: Over the last few weeks accounts of serious vape illnesses, with a few cases allegedly resulting in death, exploded into the media. CNN, USA Today, The New York Times, Fox News, and many other national media outlets covered “The Mysterious Vaping Illness That’s Becoming an Epidemic”.

In total, e-cigarettes and cannabis vapes have reportedly caused 400+ potential cases of respiratory illnesses across 25 states.

Vaping Fake NewsThe world’s knee jerk response: The city of Milwaukee issued warnings for every resident to “stop vaping immediately”. Michigan and New York State set out to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarette products. The White House has proposed a nationwide ban on all flavored e-cigarette products.

CDC health officials believe they have found some correlations between black market products and certain ingredients causing these hospitalizations, however nothing has been confirmed. Meanwhile, the media has been telling people to “stop vaping” with blanket statements like “inhaling oil into your lungs is extremely dangerous behavior that could result in death”, which is a bit dramatic considering people have been safely vaping for over a decade now.

While these vape-related hospitalizations and suspected deaths are concerning, hysteria and bans will not solve any problem (nor have they ever). Clarity of information will help, however. As a society, we should use these incidents as reason to have truthful, nuanced conversations that look at the full picture of what may actually be happening, how we can fix the real issues, and how to avoid them moving forward.

Teen Vaping

A moment of clarity: Cannabis vaping and the rise of e-cigarette vaping among teens are two entirely separate topics and should not be grouped into the same conversation. It’s important to separate these issues and look at them each under their own unfiltered spotlight.

Teens are not vaping because of “fruity flavors”; they are vaping because they like the feeling that nicotine gives them (and they think vape clouds are cool). Flavors are simply a bonus for enjoyment. Let’s be real, adults also like flavors. Instating a ban on flavors will solve nothing.

Moreover, the comparative health risks between smoking and vaping have been evaluated. Consistently vaping is found to be 95% healthier than smoking cigarettes, as seen in research published by Public Health England (PHE). But this doesn’t mean that vaping is harmless or healthy.

There is a lot to consider regarding teen vaping. However, that topic has nothing to do with the recent “lung injuries” related to cannabis vape products. These injuries more relevantly concern suspected toxic ingredients used in both legal and black-market formulations. This article focuses specifically on these ingredients.

So, what actually happened?

Until very recently, vaping has been viewed as a safer, non-carcinogenic way to use cannabis products as well as a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes. This is partly true. Vaping can be a safer way to avoid carcinogens, but it depends on the ingredients companies use in their oil formulas and the materials used to make vaping devices.

As cliché as the saying is… it is true: Not all vapes are created equal.

It is now well known that companies are using ingredients that they don’t understand and unwittingly placing customers in harm’s way. There are dangers in any new and emerging industry, especially when regulated as poorly as cannabis is. But it is no different than how the dietary supplement industry started; packed full of untrained self-proclaimed “experts” practicing what the cannabis space has coined as “bro-science”. It’s fair to give the benefit of the doubt that these manufacturers’ intentions were never to harm anyone. However, haphazardly formulating with questionable ingredients and little thought given to how these ingredients may affect someone in a delivery method such as vaping, is indeed negligence, and very serious.

Professionally trained manufacturers in the vape industry have been warning consumers and regulators of bad behavior for some time. Even lung doctors have been seeing signs of vaping’s potential dangers for years, but have not known where or with whom to register their concerns.

We now see the behavior of a handful of bad companies leaving a wake of damage just as the industry is starting programs to self regulate. In the interest of mitigating the damage as much as possible, and preventing unnecessary red tape from being instated, the industry may want to take a look at areas obviously ripe for improvement… and make improvements. This includes an objective eye and discussion concerning:

  1. The use of dangerous ingredients
  2. Black market products
  3. A market devoid of regulation
  4. Neglected manufacturer responsibilities
  5. A serious lack of consumer personal responsibility

Let’s look a little deeper into each of these variables…

#1: The use of dangerous ingredients

Federal and state authorities have identified Vitamin E Acetate (Tocopheryl Acetate) as the potential “mysterious unknown” because it is a common element in cannabis vape products that has been collected from patients who have fallen ill.

While there are many other questionable ingredients found (and not found) on the labels of these vaping products, the truth has surfaced about several companies (both legal and black market) who are using inappropriate thickening and thinning agents like Vitamin E Acetate and marketing them as “vitamin-enhanced antioxidant” diluents.

Doing your own research and testing will reveal a handful of well-known industry suppliers who’ve been using ill-suited, unresearched ingredients and selling a version of Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E) in their vape formulas. It has been reassuring that some of these companies have been forthright and honest about using Vitamin E as a thickener. However some are still selling it on their websites, claiming it is not for vaping, despite selling the product along with vape cartridges.

While many companies have been open about their methods of formulation, it provides no validation to their safety of use in vaping. Many of these substances are FDA approved food-grade ingredients, but we have no idea what happens when these chemicals are heated and inhaled.

Why and how did this happen? 

  1. Laziness: It’s easier to copy other companies’ formulas (without understanding them fully) than to invest in R&D and validate safety themselves. 
  2. Profits: Companies must always look for ways to cut costs. Unfortunately, some do so to the point of cutting corners and crossing ethical and safety boundaries.
  3. Marketing: Promoting chemicals and “vitamin antioxidants” with confusing buzzwords and recommending their use for things they should never be used for is rampant, especially in the vape industry.

#2: Black market products

Cannabis is still not 100% legal, so the black market continues to thrive. If cannabis (THC and CBD) were to be made federally legal, the black market would quickly become less profitable.

We know that these lung injuries are, in part, due to black market manufacturing that has been found to be using questionable and low-quality ingredients. There are a number of things we can do to combat this even outside of federal legalization, but banning any type of vaping outright would only drive consumers back to their local dealers on the street.

#3: A market devoid of regulation

Regulation has not failed us; it has been nonexistent. As former FDA Commissioner Kessler said, “it’s a little mind-boggling how illegal — or unregulated — products can be out there without adequate monitoring. It’s a classic example of chasing the horse after it’s out of the barn, and the federal government needs to catch up.” 

Instead of causing panic and telling consumers to stop vaping, industry regulators and health officials should be asking the right questions to the right people. How do we keep consumers safe? Which ingredients are safe and which are toxic? What needs to be included on the labels? What regulation needs to be implemented as a result?

Instead of instating bans, it would be prudent for officials to look at the already known harmful materials showing up in these products: aluminum, lead, carbonyl compounds, formaldehyde, Vitamin E Acetate, etc., and then do something about it.

As long as black market companies continue to flourish, and until these toxic materials, malfunctioning devices, and harmful ingredients continue to be imported without regulatory oversight, more people will end up getting sick.

It’s truly up to industry leaders to educate consumers, health officials, and the government on how to identify bad players selling dangerous formulas to help push them out of the market. This would be the path of least resistance; when consumers understand how to identify safe formulas vs. toxic formulas, they stop fueling bad business practices by choosing to spend their money on companies that are formulating safely and openly.

#4: Neglected manufacturer responsibilities

Just as we should be looking at ingredients for the potential cause of harm, we should also scrutinize the suppliers selling these ingredients. There are a number of big suppliers in the legal space that are selling vape diluents (thinning/thickening agents) without disclosing the chemical makeup of their products. This may be a good place to start.

The cannabis industry birthed a lot of overnight chemists and formulation “experts”. Mixing unknown substance A with unknown substance B, calling it IP, and marketing it for consumer consumption is simply unacceptable. Certain chemicals react when they come in contact with each other, often changing into new substances entirely. This process often speeds up when introduced to a catalyst, like the very heat required for a vape pen to function. Stopping sales of unknown and undisclosed materials is a very fast and effective way to mitigate much of this problem.

Some tell-tale red flags to look for:

  • If a supplier is hiding the substance they are selling for formulation applications… you may reconsider buying it.
  • If a supplier claims their formula is a “vitamin-enhanced antioxidant” blend but does not reveal what “vitamins” or “antioxidants” are included… you may reconsider buying it. 
  • If a supplier was previously selling a diluent or thickening agent intended for vaping, and abruptly added bold red warnings to their website (that were clearly not a part of their original page design) to now say the product is NOT FOR VAPING… you may reconsider buying it. 

A manufacturer should know what they are buying and never take something into their facility without knowing what it is, especially when formulating a product for human consumption, vapes included.

Some forward-looking companies are considering the recent negative press surrounding vape as an opportunity to get ahead of competition instead of a reason to slow down. While others deal with the downfall of their prior decisions to work with cheap companies selling mystery products, industry leaders have reconsidered their supply chains and aligned themselves with new safe and reputable suppliers as a business advantage to market legitimate ingredients.

#5: A serious lack of consumer personal responsibility

Vaping For Consumers

Most would agree that some level of government oversight and regulation is healthy. Though anyone who believes in the freedom of personal choice knows there is a deep level of personal responsibility that must be exercised with that.

We can discuss compliance and regulation until we are blue in the face. We can watch the months pass as our government decides what to do. Or, we can wield our power as consumers by educating ourselves and using our almighty dollars to make changes in the market faster than any government can move.

It ultimately has always been in the hands of the consumer to find brands and products they trust. If consumers don’t access the information available to them to make educated decisions, they must understand they are accepting some level of risk.

Even when consumers do their research and understand the risks associated with vaping, they must also understand that self-monitoring their own habits is equally as important as the quality of the products they use.

A separate issue not being discussed on this topic concerns consumer behaviors, or, better put, behavioral problems. Many of these cases concern individuals who have developed lipoid pneumonia admittedly after chronic overuse of their vaping device as if it were a breathing apparatus, resulting in heavy oil accumulation in the lungs.

Even when something is deemed safe for consumption (vaping, alcohol, ice cream, or cupcakes), employing the concept of moderation is usually a healthy idea. There are toxicity levels to everything. If you drink too much water, you can die from hyponatremia. If you take too many iron supplements, it can cause fatal damage to the liver and brain. If you take a whole bottle of aspirin, you’ll be taking a visit to the hospital… or the morgue.

When specifically speaking of inhaling oils into the lungs, moderation is very important. Not only in consideration of unknown chemicals and questionable vape additives but for the fact that cannabis oil itself, is an oil.

Vaping is generally considered healthier than smoking, but it is not a healthier alternative to breathing oxygen.

Closing perspective

Let’s widen the focus of this narrow spotlight on vaping and the false narrative it creates. A larger floodlight view of reality would quickly correct some misguided dialogue and remind us all that:

  • This has nothing to do with vaping.
  • This has nothing to do with cannabis.

There are certainly concerns worth looking into, but anyone who would call the recent issues an “outbreak” or “epidemic” is embarrassing themselves and spreading harmful panic.

In comparison, we remind ourselves that tobacco and tobacco-related illnesses take 480,000 lives every year. The CDC is not calling lung injuries and deaths caused by cigarettes and tobacco products an epidemic. Deaths caused by drowning in bathtubs have risen by 70% in 10 years. We have not heard major media outlets cry out to the public to “stop bathing immediately”.

In a fear-based economy, such as the one we live in, there is no limit to how far some will go with headlines like “The Vaping Lung Illness Outbreak Has Now Spread To 25 States”, disproportionately blowing a minor event into a zombie apocalypse viral explosion. We would all like to think that these tactics don’t work on intelligent people, but we know they still somehow work on influencing the collective mind. Agenda driven intentions that control large media outlets can easily spin the perception and content of all other re-shared media.

Whether these events are used to control consumer beliefs and sway trust and purchases towards some other alternative product (like we now see being pitched by big tobacco) or as a political diversion from some other more disturbing issue (pick one), we can all agree the behavior is dangerous and irresponsible. So for any of us to entertain these vape headlines as anything other than the exaggerated stories that they are, cooked up for clicks and ratings, is equally as irresponsible of us.

We must fight the tendency to allow fear-based binary thinking to reduce this topic into a good vs. bad mentality that keeps the conversation from uncovering the facts. That tendency has never led us anywhere productive or closer to reaching consensus and resolution.

Over the last decade of vaping’s rise to mainstream popularity, there have been eight alleged deaths and a few hundred hospitalizations that are linked to dangerous ingredients, black market formulators, malfunctioning devices, and overuse. While this is absolutely a cause for concern, it is not a cause for fear. It’s a call to action to get to the bottom of the well-known issues that are causing these problems and fix them.

Don’t let fear slow down your business

Lab Effects has been safely formulating for cannabis vape companies since 2012. We’ve always advised manufacturers to never use anything but a natural terpene as a vape diluent, as other common risk-prone diluents carry many unknowns.

Although terpenes are naturally found in cannabis and we have been consuming them safely for hundreds of years, even expert formulators (with actual educations in chemistry) will advise that not enough data exists yet to make definitive statements of safety. As previously mentioned, everything has a toxicity level.

Ultimately, consumers need to understand how to make sound personal choices based on real information, not hysteria. Suppliers and manufacturers need to be transparent about their ingredients and expertise. And companies selling garbage snake oil need to be regulated and driven out of business.

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