Like many unregulated industries for ingested products, in the early days of the cannabis vaping industry, before legalization led to a rush of regulation, it was sometimes difficult or impossible for consumers to gain an accurate understanding of the specific ingredients that were being used in the products that they were purchasing.
Without the threat of sanctions imposed by a regulatory body, some producers cut corners and included certain additives in their products without first taking the sufficient time to study their safety. However, the industry has undergone massive and rapid changes since the legalization of recreational cannabis in a number of US states over the last decade. One turning point for the regulation of cannabis oils for vaping came as a result of the 2019 Oregon Vaping Crisis, which centered around health outcomes caused by nicotine vaping devices, but which also led to the banning of certain additives found in some cannabis oil products. This event highlights a broader trend in the industry, which is that consumers are constantly increasing the amount of attention that they are paying to the ingredients and safety features of their oil and vaping products. Consumers are demanding cleaner and safer cannabis oil products, and businesses in the space would do well to take note.
Identifying the Problem: An E-Cigarette Crisis
The fast-paced rise of the cannabis vaping industry has led to the emergence of new health concerns that were not studied extensively in the starting days of the industry. Moreover, there is overlap between the health concerns that have been addressed in the cannabis vaping industry, and those in the e-cigarette industry, as there is some overlap in the technology between each type of device. Specifically, a number of additives have been found to improve the shelf time and other properties desired by consumers when used in both cannabis oil and nicotine vape juice. However, in the summer of 2019, a wave of hospitalizations related to consumption of e-cigarettes brought attention to the potentially harmful nature of some of these additives.
The Overlap Between Cannabis Oil and E-Cigarettes
The most widely discussed name on this list was vitamin E acetate. This additive was determined to have contributed to the wave of hospitalizations attributed to “e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury,” or EVALI, which set off the 2019 crisis (Schaneman, 2020). However, while vitamin E acetate was found in some cannabis oil products, they were found to be relatively uncommon, with one CDC study which tested 7 cannabis vaping products finding that none of the products contained any traces of the additive. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), which controls the regulation of cannabis oil products, listed vitamin E acetate on a 2020 announcement of newly banned additives, yet it was two other chemicals on the list which were ultimately found to pose the biggest risk to the cannabis oil industry.
Not All Terpenes Are Created Equal
Squalene is a terpene. Squalene can be derived from olives, sugar cane, and even shark livers, while squalane is a chemical that is derived from squalene through hydrogenation (Schaneman, 2020). However, despite their biologically-sourced origin, these additives have been found to exhibit certain characteristics that make them potentially harmful when vaporized and inhaled. Specifically, the chemical structure of these additives was found to deteriorate under higher temperatures, resulting in potentially toxic molecules.
The Chemical Structure of Squalene
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Industry Outfall: The Present and Future
As a result of the heightened attention on these additives, the OLCC announced in December of 2020 that companies would have to begin complying with new regulations that banned the use of vitamin E acetate, squalene, and squalane beginning in April 2021, and would have to sell all noncompliant products by July 1, 2021. However, it is likely that this is just the beginning of the push towards safer ingredients. The comments of numerous industry professionals indicate that consumers will continue to place heightened scrutiny on additives, indicating further changes in the industry to come.
For example, Robert Strongin, professor of organic chemistry at Portland State University in Oregon, has stated that recent scrutiny on additives has already led to a situation in which “consumers today will [not] have to worry as much as they would a couple of years ago about the safety of their vape products (Schaneman, 2020).” Moreover, this heightened scrutiny over health concerns is not limited to additives in the cannabis oil, extending to vaping devices themselves. This is illustrated by remarks given by Dana E. Schoched, CEO of O2Vape, who stated that “the company shifted to all-glass and all-ceramic cartridges for safety and quality reasons (Schaneman, 2021).” The fallout from the 2019 vape crisis has already had a significant impact on the cannabis vaping market. However, how will this trend continue to impact the industry in the future?
Signs of the lasting impact are already apparent. Specifically, the 2019 crisis has led not only to the banning of particular additives, but to the creation of systematic structures to identify and address health concerns. For example, Kevin Gallagher, executive director of the Colorado Cannabis Manufacturers Association, has remarked that “One of the good things that came from the vape crisis are some added guard rails that are promoting product quality and product safety (Schaneman, 2021).” Moving forward, firms in the industry will have to address not only a more discerning and well-informed set of customer demands, but also increased regulatory safeguards.
The cannabis vaping industry is relatively young. However, the case of the 2019 vape crisis demonstrates the usefulness of identifying trends in the more mature legal markets which often go on to inform the wider industry. What began as a health crisis concerning e-cigarettes and identified in Oregon resulted in a shift that was experienced across the entire cannabis vaping industry. With customers demanding safe products and the information to make informed decisions when doing so, the industry must continue to push harder than ever to address all health and safety concerns related to cannabis vaping products. The result, which is already becoming apparent, is a final product experience for customers that is safer than ever before.