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Vape Illnesses Diminish

PHOTO Lee Phillips

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Vape Illnesses Diminish

The outbreak of lung injuries related to vaporizer use seems to have subsided. What did we learn and who’s responsible?

After a few scary months, the vaping health scare of 2019 seems to be over. And according to experts at the federal government and in the New England Journal of Medicine, we appear to know both who was responsible and how to avoid a repeat of such a scenario ever again.

As of Feb. 18, severe lung illnesses or injuries linked to vaporizer products — containing both THC as well as nicotine — killed 68 people and hospitalized 2,807 in all 50 states and several U.S. territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The primary cause of these illnesses and deaths, the CDC wrote in its last and final report on the matter, was indeed an additive called vitamin E acetate, a commonly used food product that is highly hazardous when ingested. The presence of in the lungs of vitamin E acetate, first identified by David Downs of Leafly News as a cutting agent, recently introduced to the illicit market and commonly found in underground vaporizer cartridges, would explain the symptoms, similar to lipiod pneumonia, found in a majority of patients.

And that’ appears to be the last and final analysis, as “due to continued declines in new” cases the CDC’s Feb. 25 released was its “final update” on hospitalizations and deaths nationally, barring any new developments. And with that agency busy with the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to imagine a months-old scare that appears to have gone away competing for its attention.

So what did we learn, and who can we blame? As researchers wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 5, the vaporizer health scare was indeed an illicit market health scare — and if you prefer, you could call it “The Dank Vapes Scare.”

Dank Vapes is a cannabis brand, but one without a trademark or a founder — it’s simply the packaging used by a significant number of vaporizers found to contain harmful additives. 

Whether any one person was responsible for the brand’s beginnings is still unclear, but as a team of physicians and public-health experts wrote in the NEJM, “the most common THC product that was reported [among victims] was marketed under the ‘Dank Vape’ label.”

The researchers there cautioned that despite the CDC’s findings of vitamin E acetate as the causal agent, “the definitive substance or substances contributing to injury have not been determined,” but their research was limited exclusively to 98 case patients in Illinois and Wisconsin — two states in which only illegal cannabis products were available prior prior to Jan. 1, when recreational cannabis was legalized in Illinois. (The state had medical cannabis before that day, but there’s as yet no indication that offending products were obtained via those routes.)

“All of this supports the theory that the problem was caused by illegal vape additives, which have now been withdrawn from the underground market,” said Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, in a recent email.

These findings will vindicate backers of legalization that throughout the crisis questioned any link to legal, lab-tested products — the line that was pushed, repeatedly, without any supporting data, by anti-legalization zealots, chief among them Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). Playing off of existing fears, SAM has managed to convince some states to slow legalization efforts.

Of course, depending on your point of view, the vape scare ends without any good news for anybody — especially if you’re a vaper.

“The CDC recommends that persons not use THC-containing e-cigarette, or vaping, products, particularly from informal sources,” the NEJM article authors wrote. “However, evidence is not yet sufficient to rule out the contribution of other chemicals of concern.”

“Therefore, the best way for persons to ensure that they are not at risk while the investigation continues is to consider refraining from the use of all e-cigarette, or vaping, products,” they added. “Regardless of the ongoing investigation, e-cigarette, or vaping, products should never be used by youths, young adults, or pregnant women.”

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