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Health crisis hits U.S. vapers: Carefree toking up in smoke

The first case of vape-related respiratory disease in Canada was confirmed on September 18. Meanwhile, the U.S. seems to have an epidemic on its hands. The CDC reports that, as of October 8, 2019, 1,299 lung injury cases associated with using vaping products have been identified, including 26 deaths across 21 states. And these figures continue to increase weekly.

The cannabis market comprises not only manufacturers of e-cigarette and vaporizing accessories, but also some of the largest cannabis producers who are marketing (or will market) vaping liquids containing THC (Canopy Growth, HEXO, Tilray and many more). How will the crisis affect the cannabis industry? First, it’s important to understand the source of this outbreak and whether all vaping products are to blame.

Weed vaping devices are not created equal
The main difference between vaporizers and vapes is the type of cannabis combustion they use. Vaporizers work by conduction or convection. Conduction transfers direct heat to a solid (typically dried herbs). It’s easy to use, compact, and heats up quickly. Convection sends indirect heat through ground herbs, oil or extracts. It provides more accurate temperature control, heats more uniformly and generally produces better flavours. Alternatively, vapes use a battery to heat a metal wire which, in turn, heats a liquid (e-liquid or “vape juice”), producing a vapour. E-liquid is generally composed of dietary supplements propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, as well as water, alcohol, various flavours, and nicotine or cannabis.

Vaporizing vs. vaping: Is one riskier?
Vaping weed is like using an e-cigarette, but the worrying, mysterious epidemic of lung disease threatening the U.S. seems to be due to vaping, not vaporizing. Though vaporizing cannabis is not risk-free, vaping is certainly riskier because of the composition of the requisite liquid cartridges. Vaping products enabling recreational use of cannabis oil are currently illegal in Canada. That will likely soon change, with the adoption of the bill on edible cannabis products.

The specific cause of vape-related lung disease in the U.S. remains unclear, but it appears that vaping products containing THC or other cannabinoids are involved and the outbreak may be due to the addition of ingredients as cutting agents in cannabis oils commonly used on the illegal market. In 77% of the cases studied by the CDC, patients inhaled THC and bought their vape juice from “informal sources.” More precisely, cannabis cartridges containing vitamin E acetate trouble authorities. Used in the cosmetics industry to make creams and soaps, it is not harmful on its own but could cause lipoid pneumonia if inhaled. Patients suffer from severe coughing, chest pain and sometimes vomiting.

Canopy Growth and Organigram ensure that vitamin E acetate will not be used as a viscosity agent.

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When in doubt …
U.S. authorities advise consumers not to vape THC-based products, to purchase their cartridges from accredited and authorized sales outlets, and not to modify any acquired vaping products, especially by adding a substance not in the original product. The addition of vitamins and colouring agents to vaping liquids is already prohibited under the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act.

Market hesitation
Canadian cannabis producers will have to get Health Canada’s approval for their new vaping products and demonstrate compliance with the regulations before they go to market. With pot stocks already down significantly, this crisis is casting a sinister shadow on the market situation, with possible weaker interest in the short term. Finding the root cause of the vaping health crisis is now essential to consumer confidence in legal products.

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