About a month has passed since a mysterious and devastating new lung disease took its first victims. New studies have been released each week since, amplifying the concern. The “vape scare” set off so much public panic, states like Massachusetts and cities like San Francisco are banning vape products altogether. At the same time, memes about our selective sensitivity to news and theories that cigarette companies have fabricated the whole thing are running rampant around the internet. So, is this vape scare an unfounded war on a new industry or an urgent health warning we need to heed? Let’s investigate (spoiler alert: we’re leaning toward the latter).
What we know
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), over 1000 have fallen ill to the vape-induced lung disease, and the official death toll has now climbed to 18. Compare these numbers to the 805 afflicted and 12 dead last week, or the 530 afflicted and 7 deaths reported the week before that, and you can bet to see these numbers continue to rise.
Based on the 771 cases surveyed, 70% of those afflicted were male, 80% were under 35 years old, with 16% being under 18 years old. The outbreak is nationwide, with cases in 48 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Fifteen states have reported deaths.
So far, scientists have pegged Vitamin E as the culprit for this mysterious lung disease. However, the CDC recently announced “the latest findings from the investigation into lung injuries associated with e-cigarette use, or vaping, suggests products containing THC play a role in the outbreak.”
It’s true: the numbers don’t bode well for cannabis. Of the 578 patients they studied, the CDC received data on the vape products they consumed in the 90 days leading up to hospitalization. About 78% reported using THC products, and 37% of those patients used THC products exclusively. Close to 58% reported using nicotine-containing products, and 17% reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products. While it would be comforting to blame black market products, a case in Oregon centered on a patient who reportedly used a THC product legally purchased at a registered dispensary.
In October, doctors at Mayo Clinic took samples from 17 lung damage patients. The results of their studies likened the damage vaporizers did to their lungs to lung damage you’d see from a patient exposed to toxic chemicals. It’s unclear whether the patients consumed nicotine or THC products.
What we don’t know
The ongoing vape scare illuminates what brands can’t tell you: we do not know. Brands across the industry have released statements assuring us their products are safe. But with numbers and facts around the issue changing every day, how is anyone to know?
As the amount of cannabis research slowly catches up to industry sales numbers, there is little data we have aside from anecdotal evidence. Cannabis itself is worlds different from the cannabis our parents smoked. Until recently, our scientific understanding of what cannabis can do was relegated to studies based off of cannabis grown on the University of Mississippi campus (the only university historically authorized to grow cannabis for research purposes). The cannabis grown there is more similar to the brown weed our parents smoked than the carefully crafted crystallized flower you’d find in stores today. That means the studies are based on low quality plants that are limited in its uses for academic research. So, what do we not know when it comes to cannabis? Almost everything.
The news reports of vape-induced lung disease bring to light that in the cannabis industry, the onus is on us as consumers to know what we are buying. In cannabis, we are all volunteering to be guinea pigs of a new generation of cannabis because what we are consuming is unlike anything we’ve seen before. This reality is amazing when you’re wide eyed at a dispensary with all new options at your disposal, and terrifying in instances like the vape scare.
Published: October 23, 2019
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News