An overview of what happened
After a decade of consumer vaping without incident, reports of vape-related illnesses and hospitalizations flooded the media. Many national media outlets, including CNN (Cable News Network), USA Today, The New York Times, and Fox News, covered what the CDC (Center for Disease Control) is now calling “E-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury,” or EVALI.”
The national knee-jerk reaction
Seven states, including New York and Michigan, issued a ban on flavored e-cigarettes. Massachusetts took a step further and banned the sale of all vape products, included unflavored e-cigs, while the White House proposed a nationwide ban on all flavored e-cigarette products.
Although most bans were derailed and halted, the damage had already been done as hysteria broke out in the vape market, filling consumers with fear and confusion. Anyone who was accepting the alarming news at face value was convinced that vaping was dangerous, which, still to date, evidence does not support.
Where we’re at today
Approximately 1,500 vape-related lung injuries have been reported in the US, 26 of which resulted in death. Vitamin E acetate was found in all the lung fluid tests recently conducted by the CDC. Although Vitamin E acetate can be safely consumed topically or as a dietary supplement, it is not safe when inhaled into the lungs. No other potential chemical concerns were discovered in these tests, including MCT oil, terpenes, or flavorings.
Despite professionally trained manufacturers in the vape industry warning consumers and regulators of bad behavior and poor formulation ingredients for some time, it is now well known that a few companies (black market and legal) were selling products containing materials they did not understand, unwittingly placing customers in harm’s way.
A call-to-action, not panic
The media’s oversimplified and vilifying coverage of the vape-related illnesses with apocalyptic headlines like “The Vaping Lung Illness Outbreak Has Now Spread To 25 States” easily steers the public perception toward fear-based binary thinking. This assumption that anything related to vaping is inherently dangerous and even deadly is neither productive nor fact-based. The severity of these events calls not for panic, but for an objective analysis and discussion of potential causes and pointed actions our industry can take to prevent future health concerns.
Moreover, a ban on vaping does the opposite of preventing future occurrences, as it promotes fear over education. The War on Drugs did not stop drug use. Prohibition did not stop alcohol consumption. There are numerous things we can do to combat the recent vaping incidents but banning any type of vaping outright could drive consumers back to their local dealers on the street, increasing the taboo nature of its use, and thus demand.
What needs to change?
Bad business practices from a handful of irresponsible companies led to widespread damage before the cannabis industry fully implemented self-regulation. Now, to mitigate future damage and further unnecessary bureaucratic constraints, it is our industry’s responsibility to spotlight what needs to be changed and command that change through our own course of action.
Here are a few factors that played a role in our current situation that can quickly be remedied:
- Dangerous ingredients – Use of unresearched and untested thickening agents like Vitamin E acetate branded as “vitamin-enhanced antioxidants”.
- Black market products – Lack of federal legalization of cannabis forces consumers to turn to questionable products and ingredients with an untracked origin in states where there is not yet recreational cannabis.
- Nonexistent regulation – A system for monitoring ingredients and tracking product importation must be in place to prevent toxic products from infiltrating the marketplace.
- Manufacturer responsibility – Transparency among suppliers on the chemicals they include in their formulas should not only be prioritized, but mandatory.
The Smoke and Mirrors of Cannabis Vaping offers a more in-depth look at these variables and areas of concern.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, while the vape industry becomes more scrutinized through incomplete and false narratives, a strangely familiar silhouette appears on the horizon.
Hmmm… It looks like a vape. It functions like a vape. But it’s…a “heat-stick”?
In the middle of this so called “epidemic” engulfing the vape industry, a new big tobacco product swiftly hit the market with just coincidental timing — a product now positioning itself as a safer alternative to vaping, despite still being a vape device.
The recently launched Iqos is being distributed internationally through Phillip Morris. Altria is claiming it’s “not a vape”. The same media that called for a national ban of vaping now feels that “the timing couldn’t be better” for this revolutionary new product.
Altria positions its product as a vape alternative by stating “Iqos heats tobacco, but doesn’t burn it, and is designed to give users the same rush of nicotine as smoking with fewer toxins.” When you investigate how this “new” device functions, we’re told, “To use Iqos, users insert a Marlboro-branded heat-stick, which looks like a stubby cigarette, into the device. They then click a button and the device heats the tobacco, producing an aerosol.”
Vape Definition: “the act of inhaling and exhaling the aerosol, often referred to as vapor, which is produced by an e-cigarette or similar device.”
Sure, the Iqos does not involve combustion, but neither do vapes. That’s why it is called vapor, and not smoke. The process described for the Iqos is exactly how vaping works. Dry herb vaporizing has been around for a decade. In fact, this “new” Iqos mechanism is notably similar to how the AtmosRx Dry Herb Vaporizer works, a vape pen made in Florida back in 2010. This is not a newly discovered technology, and it is absolutely a vape.
“The timing couldn’t be better for the new nicotine product, as scrutiny grows around smokeless alternatives like e-cigarettes.”
The media and Altria’s comments on the timing of the Iqos release has several implications, each as equally dark and unsettling as the next. Was it the timing of the illnesses and deaths that couldn’t have been better? Or was it the viral sharing of unsubstantiated misinformation regarding the root cause(s) of these events?
Some EVALI patients that were used as a cautionary example of the horrors of vaping have already come out sharing that the national focus on e-cigarettes is misdirected and downright false. Many had never even used an e-cig and had been smoking poorly formulated, toxic cannabis blends using faulty hardware.
It would appear these events have been skewed to manipulate consumer beliefs and direct trust (and money) to alternative products – perhaps products like Iqos.
As society’s media consumption has become more insular and cluttered, we’ve moved away from seeking truth and knowledge as individuals, instead often choosing only to surround ourselves with thoughts and information that reaffirm our already existing beliefs. If one’s only Reddit exposure is r/PrequelMemes, one can easily believe that the prequels were the best Star Wars films ever, and it would appear that everyone else also agrees. This is, of course, nonsense in the grand mind of society.
Viral media relies on echo chambers, more eager to find others who share the same false perceptions and engage in the same misguided discussions, than to find reason and foundational understanding.
This vaping “epidemic” is not a far cry from many other similar evolutions of the hypodermic effect, in which segmented audiences are highly targeted by the media, which holds the undeniable power to appeal to our emotions and shape our worldview.
So, if we take a step back from the oversimplified and targeted media portrayal of the vape-related concerns, what would our perception be of these events?
Contrary to the media, by talking directly with responsible vape manufacturers and formulators, studying the lung tests conducted, and listening to the patients themselves, it’s clear what happened had nothing to do with vaping, and it had nothing to do with cannabis.
There are very legitimate market and formulation practices that warrant change but labeling recent issues as “an outbreak” or “epidemic” is not only shoddy reporting, it causes unnecessary and misdirected fear.
In contrast to the 26 deaths that resulted from toxic thickening agents, the tobacco industry claims over 480,000 lives each year. The CDC makes no claims that deaths caused by tobacco products and cigarettes are of “epidemic” proportions. Heart disease takes over 600,000 lives a year. We don’t see the media waging war and promoting nation-wide bans on sugar, salt, bacon, or other foods known to be bad for the heart and linked to this disease.
Where do we go from here?
Regardless of the motivations behind frenzied and misleading reporting, whether it be to better the positioning of a new product launch or to maintain control over the hive mind, this behavior is negligent and dangerous. As manufacturers and suppliers, it falls on us to remain skeptical of fear-mongering headlines and focus our discourse on solution-oriented thinking based on facts. Examining our industry with an unbiased eye on what isn’t working and standing against bad behavior in the industry is the only way to make productive change and, in turn, educate consumers on the safest products and formulations to consume.
“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.” – Jim Morrison