Tuesday 17 September 2019

Keeping up with the state of play on vaping

I was looking around the other day for something like this. The Competitive Enterprise Institute has started tallying up all the reported cases of 'vaping-related' illness in the US.

THC-vaping, and especially illicit vape cartridges, feature prominently, but there are other cases where that's not yet pinned down.
As Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos, a cardiologist, recently wrote, a sudden outbreak in a short period of time and in a specific geographic region (so far this appears restricted to the U.S.) when e-cigarettes have been available and widely used around the world for more than 12 years, is not indicative of disease, but rather of poisoning. That is, it is unlikely that the cause stems from well-established products, but rather from a new product, ingredient, or manufacturing practice affecting products in the illegal market, legal market, or both. It does not, as some argue, prove that e-cigarettes or vaping causes long-term harms.
Recall that THC-based vaping is legal in some states, but not others. There are dodgy suppliers of vaping cartridges, often for THC-based product; that THC-based vaping is illegal in some places means there will be dodgy suppliers. Here's a New York Times report on illegal vape cartridges in Wisconsin, where THC is not legal.
On Wednesday the Trump administration said it planned to ban most flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine pods — including mint and menthol, in an effort to reduce the allure of vaping for teenagers. But the move may expand underground demand for flavored pods. And it does nothing to address the robust trade in illicit cannabis vaping products.

The Wisconsin operation is wholly characteristic of a “very advanced and mature illicit market for THC vape carts,” said David Downs, an expert in the marijuana trade and the California bureau chief for Leafly, a website that offers news, information and reviews of cannabis products. (‘Carts’ is the common shorthand for cartridges.)

“These types of operations are integral to the distribution of contaminated THC-based vape carts in the United States,” Mr. Downs said.

They are known as “pen factories,” playing a crucial middleman role: The operations buy empty vape cartridges and counterfeit packaging from Chinese factories, then fill them with THC liquid that they purchase from the United States market. Empty cartridges and packaging are also available on eBay, Alibaba and other e-commerce sites.

The filled cartridges are not by definition a health risk. However, Mr. Downs, along with executives from legal THC companies and health officials, say that the illicit operations are using a tactic common to other illegal drug operations: cutting their product with other substances, including some that can be dangerous.

The motive is profit; an operation makes more money by using less of the core ingredient, THC — which is expensive — and diluting it with oils that cost considerably less.

Public health authorities said some cutting agents might be the cause of the lung illnesses and had homed in on a particular one, vitamin E acetate, an oil that could cause breathing problems and lung inflammation if it does not heat up fully during the vaping aerosolization process.

Medium-grade THC can cost $4,000 a kilo and higher-grade THC costs double that, but additives may cost pennies on the dollar, said Chip Paul, a longtime vaping entrepreneur in Oklahoma who led the state’s drive to legalize medical marijuana there.

“That’s what they’re doing, they’re cutting this oil,” he said of illegal operations. “If I can cut it in half,” he described the thinking, “I can double my money.”
In normal markets, brand reputation is incredibly important. In illegal markets, having a very popular brand means that you're likely soon to be found and arrested. That makes for very different incentives. In normal markets, you build up brand reputation to be able to run over the long term. In illegal markets, if your brand starts getting popular, you probably need to start thinking about end-game strategies for cashing out as fast as you can.

That said, it's still ridiculously stupid to draw massive attention to your own product by killing your customers. More likely, the Dank Vapes people didn't think the thickeners would do harm (it's a vitamin; vitamins are healthy!) and figured it was time to cash out. 

Vaping has been well established in the US for some time. The big recent surge in cases can then be consistent with a few potential hypotheses:
  • Long-term risks are always unknown, and now some folks have been vaping long enough for those to eventuate
    • But that would predict a slowly rising number of cases broadly matching the uptake pattern. Instead there's a surge, and a surge that's particular to America and not seen in the UK where vaping is also well-established;
  • When millions of people are vaping, random-draw low-probability stuff becomes more likely
    • That could be part of the base rate, but also doesn't explain the surge;
  • Dodgy suppliers, mostly in the THC market but potentially also in the nicotine market, figured out they could cut product with weird oils and double their money; supply chains of empty cartridges and counterfeit packaging established themselves around the THC market. 
I'm still betting on that dodgy suppliers explains most of this mess. 

Megan McArdle nails it:
At this point, the best information suggests that a recent spate of deaths from a vaping-related lung disease — six at last report — had little or nothing to do with legal e-cigarettes. Rather, the deaths, and more than 300 confirmed cases of the disease in dozens of states, seem to be linked to illegal cartridges, mostly using marijuana derivatives that had been emulsified with vitamin E acetate, according to Food and Drug Administration investigators. The FDA has warned against using it for inhalation, and it isn’t used in legally manufactured e-cigarettes.

Naturally, the government wants to ban legally manufactured e-cigarettes.
Meanwhile, Radio New Zealand is running every scare story it can find on vaping, and providing none of the necessary context about the illicit THC market. I absolutely do not envy the folks over at MoH having to deal with the political pressure caused by RNZ's driving of a moral panic. 

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