Last month, in the days before an emergency ban on flavored vapor-pen products was expected to go into effect in Washington, flavored vaporizers could be found for 35% off around the state.
“The stores [started] discounting, and the sales started skyrocketing,” says Cy Scott, founder and CEO of Headset, a point-of-sale system for smoke shops. An effort to lock down the vaping crisis had actually sent people out to stock up.
This sales data, which comes from marijuana retail shops, shows that in Washington, California, and Colorado, regions that have instituted some vape bans, sales of vape pens have been sliding since August. But despite the bans, price drops ensured that product was still moving.
This is one of the many unintended consequences of prohibition. Another one? It’s not very popular.
President Trump has yet to sign a ban on most flavored e-cigarettes that he promised in September. A new report from the Associated Press suggests he’s worried such a move would alienate voters. Public opinion on the ban is nearly split.
It’s not just Trump who is struggling to figure out the right regulatory approach. State legislators are not sure what to do about it either. Some are issuing bans, while others are calling for research. So far, Washington and Massachusetts have adopted the most stringent policies. Much of the ire has been directed at e-cigarettes as opposed to weed pens. San Francisco, for example, has banned the sale of e-cigarettes, leaving marijuana pens legal.
The stores [started] discounting, and the sales started skyrocketing.”
However, both vaporizers and e-cigarettes have been involved in the vaping illness. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that THC, marijuana’s psychoactive element, was present in 82% of e-cigarette or vaping-associated lung-injury deaths; nicotine was present in 62%. But that doesn’t mean that THC is the problem ingredient. Instead, it indicates that whatever is causing the vaping illness is found in both e-cigarettes and vaporizers.
As data from Headset shows, extreme reactions—such as bans—can have the opposite of the intended effect: It can drive sales. Bans may also push people to look for products on the black market or to make their own, which is where many of the products connected with the vaping illness are coming from.
Despite media reports and efforts to stem vape sales, the number of lung-injury cases related to vaping continues to grow. Between November 8 and November 13, at least 100 more instances of the disease were reported. The condition has reached every state in the U.S. except for Alaska. The CDC has identified at least one “chemical of concern” in relation to the illness: vitamin E acetate. Both black market vendors and vaping enthusiasts, who make their own liquids to put inside vapes, often use vitamin E acetate to dilute cannabis oil.
As stores in some regions clear their shelves of now illegal merchandise, some cannabis-focused vaporizer brands have taken a hit.
“It’s caused 50% decrease in our vape sales,” William MacLean, CEO of the vaping-products maker Wildflower Brands, told me in early October. At that point, only bans in San Francisco and Massachusetts had taken effect. But the threat of further bans incited weed shops to hold off on orders. He says his business shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden that’s arisen from a lack of regulation. “We have had no problems—not one reported issue—from any of our customers and/or any of our agencies,” he says.
He points to the United Kingdom, which has a thriving vaping culture but has not experienced a related illness outbreak. Regulators there have taken a more nuanced approach, limiting e-cigarette tank size, restricting the level of nicotine in vape liquid, and banning specific ingredients such as caffeine and taurine, a protein-blocking amino acid.
But in the U.S. and Canada, which lack articulated rules on e-cigarettes, companies are free to make products that will be popular but not necessarily safe. MacLean notes that young people in particular are drawn to vapes that produce a milky white smoke. Vape-pod makers are keen to put additives into their mixes that create that effect. “If you add propylene glycol, you get this huge mass of white cloud, and the hotter it gets, the more [vapor] you’re going to see,” he says.
Researchers are just beginning to understand the effects on human health of inhaling propylene glycol and other aspects of e-cigarettes. One of the most difficult aspects of studying e-cigarettes and vaporizers is that they vary in composition, as do the liquids being vaped. As Harvard researcher Yulin Hswen, who’s working on tracking down the multiple root causes of the vaping illness, told me earlier this month, “People are vaping everything from Coca-Cola to adding herbal oils like lavender.”
People are vaping everything from Coca-Cola to adding herbal oils like lavender.”
That makes it difficult for regulators to write legislation that targets problematic substances. At the same time, there are some things researchers know to be problematic, such as vitamin E acetate. Other research has pointed to hazards arising from metal components inside vaporizers. A 2018 study from Johns Hopkins University found “unsafe levels” of metals including lead, chromium, and manganese in the vapors inhaled by users. Subsequent studies have produced similar findings.
“We should be regulating the quality of the devices to make sure there are no dangerous components, like a chromium element for example,” says MacLean. “Those were rampant all over disposable vaporizers—everyone knows chromium causes cancer.”
Some states are starting to dig into these very particulars. Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division has suggested banning three additives commonly used in vapes: vitamin E acetate, polyethylene glycol (commonly found in both antifreeze and laxatives), and medium-chain triglycerides (found in coconut and palm oil). But more research needs to be done to find out which additives and metals are truly harmful. In the CDC’s investigation into vape-related lung injury it notably did not find plant oils, petroleum distillates, MCT oil, or terpenes among tested lung samples. California governor Gavin Newsom has asked for guidance from the California Department of Public Health on creating awareness and new legislation to mitigate potential health problems associated with vaping. He’s also called for a crackdown from law enforcement on shops selling to minors and on counterfeit product sales.
Blanket bans that make e-cigarettes and flavored pods totally illegal not only have the potential to harm good operators. There’s also the possibility that they don’t really do anything at all. Ironically, the bans may only represent a blip in sales for the majority of cannabis vape companies. Tim Conder, the COO of TILT Holdings, which owns several cannabis-focused companies that make and sell vaporizers and vaporizer products, says that since the drama around bans has worn off, his business has stabilized.
“We saw revenue effects,” he says, “but we’re already ramping back up on sales.”