By Saul Kaye, pharmacist and founder of iCAN and CannaTech.
With 1,604 reported lung injuries and 34 deaths linked to vaping in the U.S. in recent months, hysteria, finger-pointing and rushed policy changes are threatening the nicotine and cannabis vaping industries.
Public health officials have been issuing panicked warnings and governments have been quick to propose emergency bans. Media coverage has focused more on illness than on education. As a result, consumer anxiety is high and there are signs it is impacting sales in both vaping segments.
Vaping had been a rapidly booming industry. Sales hit $9.6 billion between 2017 and 2019 in the U.S.—one third of the country’s legal cannabis industry. The global market for e-cigarettes reached $11 billion in 2018. But major retailers have halted nicotine vaping sales, regional bans are in place, and, while accurate data is difficult to come by in the cannabis market, some reports claim legal cannabis vape sales have declined as much as 15% in recent weeks.
What’s needed now more than anything, though, is clarity. Based on my decades of experience in the pharmaceuticals industry and more recently in the research-driven Israeli cannabis industry, I believe rigorous research and testing with a focus on public health and patient safety are the only ways to achieve that.
The first priority for research and testing is finding the cause of the recent issues. Despite many theories, we still don’t know what’s causing these illnesses, which have affected those vaping THC, nicotine or both. Some reports say the impact resembles chemical burns or toxic chemical exposure, others have pointed to a form of pneumonia caused by an accumulation of lipids in the lungs.
According to the CDC, the majority of those who became ill after vaping THC used prefilled cartridges purchased from the illicit market. Some of these illegal vaping products have contained cadmium, a toxic element linked to a condition called cadmium pneumonitis. Other cartridges were found to contain vitamin E acetate, a common ingredient in cosmetics that is not meant to be inhaled.
How would a heavy metal or a skin cream ingredient make its way into vaping cartridges? The answer goes to the heart of the problem. Unscrupulous criminal enterprises looking to increase profit margins can cut costs by using cadmium to solder vaping device parts together. They can easily cut their cannabis oil with agents like vitamin E acetate. They source oil from cannabis grows rife with dangerous pesticides, fungicides and other contaminants. But until we know the true cause of the recent illnesses, we won’t really know how to address the source beyond basic enforcement policies already in place.
With cannabis still illegal in most U.S. states and limited, expensive retail networks in place in others, it’s easy to see how illicit products maintain their appeal. Reducing their use requires not just cracking down on the illicit trade, but taking steps to make the regulated market more affordable and accessible.
The second-place research and testing can improve is on the legal, regulated products themselves. Here, the legal cannabis industry is already way ahead of the loosely regulated nicotine vape industry where testing and ingredient disclosure standards should be established. By-and-large, the testing standards in states with legal cannabis programs are effective and are typically more rigorous than those for food and drinks.
But across both segments, a common set of best practices and commitment to transparency would help address consumer concerns. These standards should include the typical testing for contaminants as well as require consumer access to test results and disclosure of all ingredients. A further step would be to introduce vapor testing, which would provide insights into how ingredients interact with each other and the vaping hardware along with any potential changes caused by their exposure to heat.
The third-place research and testing is vital is on the long-term risks and benefits of the different types of vaping and various ingredients. Let’s not forget that while the media has portrayed vapers as teens looking for a watermelon-flavored high, the truth is far more nuanced. Public health experts stress that nicotine vaping is still much safer than cigarette smoking and has an important role to play in helping smokers kick the habit. For patients who struggle with nausea, vomiting and swallowing issues, cannabis vaping is a vital alternative to pills and edibles.
Along with better understanding of ingredients and their impact, more work can be done on advancing delivery systems to maximize efficacy. In my home country Israel, for example, significant investments in R&D have led to one company developing a revolutionary pocket-sized, metered-dose inhaler that’s designed for precise delivery of cannabis. The device, which has the approval of Israel’s Health Ministry, is already in use at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital.
This is no doubt a crisis for both nicotine and cannabis vaping brands. But by cutting through the fear and hysteria with science, facts and transparency, the recent crisis can be used as an opportunity to improve vaping products and reduce risks to public health. Through better study and a redoubled commitment to product safety, the vaping industry can regain the public’s and politicians’ trust.
Saul Kaye is the founder if iCAN: Israeli Cannabis and its CannaTech series of global cannabis conferences. A trained pharmacist, he has built several retail pharmacy businesses along with other ventures.
The preceding article is from one of our external contributors. It does not represent the opinion of Benzinga and has not been edited.
Photo by Javier Hasse.