Under a cloud: Canadian cannabis producers stand by upcoming vape products amid U.S. health scare
Licensed cannabis producers in Canada are standing by the safety of their upcoming vape pen products in the wake of a spate of lung illnesses that has left six dead and affected close to 500 people in 33 states south of the border.
Both cannabis and nicotine vape pens have been linked to the mysterious lung condition in the U.S., with one of the deaths reportedly tied to cannabis oil bought in a legal pot shop in Oregon, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
With a month to go before cannabis vape products become legal in Canada, major industry players who are positioning to supply the new market appear confident that Canada’s highly regulated legal cannabis system is equipped to ensure the safety of consumers who vape.
“Although it’s going to be critical for us to ensure that we look at all of our input materials and we get specific analysis to make sure there are no additional contaminants in the product, we must remember we are in a highly regulated environment in Canada where consumer safety comes first,” said Greg Engel, chief executive officer of Organigram Inc., a licensed producer that has a partnership with Pax Labs, an American vaping company that developed the popular Juul e-cigarette.
“Legal extract product will be stringently tested for contaminants like heavy metals and solvents, which is not a process done with black market product,” said a statement from Quebec-based licensed producer HEXO Corp., which is also developing a line of cannabis vape pens.
There is an optic of safety in vaping, where consumers believe it is a safer option to combustion. That may change
John Kagia, cannabis research firm New Frontier Data
It is still unclear what exactly is causing hundreds of vapers to develop respiratory problems, but a statement released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pointed at vitamin E acetate — used as a suspension fluid in some cannabis vape pens — as the possible culprit.
“While the FDA does not have enough data to presently conclude that vitamin E acetate is the cause of the lung injury, the agency believes it is prudent to avoid inhaling this substance,” the FDA said.
Canopy Growth Corp’s vice-president of communications, Jordan Sinclair, told the Post that “none of Canopy Growth’s vape devices will use vitamin E acetate.”
“There is still insufficient information to comment specifically on the media reports coming out of the U.S. but we believe that the mix of information underscores how important it is for governments to create regulated frameworks for cannabis vape products,” Sinclair added.
Engel, too, confirmed that Organigram will not be using vitamin E acetate as a vape pen ingredient. Health Canada’s Tobacco and Vaping Products Act bans the use of “vitamins and colouring agents” in vaping products, although it is unclear if vitamin E acetate falls in that category. The department also insists that any ingredient in a vape pen besides flavouring agents, should be of a pharmaceutical quality.
This is the first time since 2015, when vaping emerged as a serious trend, especially amongst teenagers, that a number of health authorities on the state and federal levels have simultaneously issued warnings on the effects of using nicotine and cannabis infused vape devices.
“I think what we are seeing now is one of the first real debates around the formulation of vape products and whether, even legal products, are actually safe for public consumption,” said John Kagia, the executive vice-president of industry analytics at cannabis research firm New Frontier Data.
“I think it’s still much too early to see the impact of this health scare on consumer demand, but there is an optic of safety in vaping, where consumers believe it is a safer option to combustion. That may change,” Kagia said.
Aurora Cannabis Inc., one of the earliest developers of a legal vaping product in Canada, says their Aurora Cloud device does not contain any flavourings or dilutive additives, and any new vape product that comes onto the market in the fall will be “tested to a rigorous standard to ensure consumer safety.”
The problem, however, says Kagia, is no one is 100 per cent sure on what exactly is causing the surge in respiratory disorders in the U.S.
If the industry is saying it is safe, they actually don’t know that themselves
Jacob Borodovsky an epidemiologist at the Washington University School of Medicine
Here in Canada, health authorities are just beginning to collect data to determine if a similar problem exists, and if so, whether it is linked to the illegal vape pen market.
“Vape pens, both cannabis and nicotine, became popular so quickly and it was hard for governments to say, ‘No we’re not going to legalize that,’ when they were seen as an alternative to cigarettes,” Kagia said.
“Because it is such new product class and because the environment has been evolving so quickly, the adoption rate of these products moved faster than the science did to help us understand what the different compositions of these vape products could mean for the health of consumers.”
That means despite the assertion of licensed producers on the safety of their products, there simply isn’t enough longitudinal data anywhere to suggest that vaping, as a form of consuming cannabis, is completely safe, according to Jacob Borodovsky an epidemiologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri who has studied opioids and cannabis use.
“Sure, many of those who have reported breathing problems might have bought vape devices from the illegal market, and you really don’t know what goes into them, but at the same time you just don’t know the long-term effects of vaping cannabis consistently. If the industry is saying it is safe, they actually don’t know that themselves,” Borodovsky said.
But for many in the industry, the latest health scare is in fact a testament to why those who vape should only purchase products from legal sources.
“I think it’s too early for us to comment on whether this concern over vaping is going to affect sales. But I can tell you that for us, the biggest priority is to ensure safe, consistent access for the consumer and you will get that from the legal market,” said Tim Pellerin, the general manager of PAX Labs for Canada. Besides Organigram, PAX has partnerships to develop vape pens with three other licensed producers — Aphria Inc., The Supreme Cannabis Co. and Aurora.
“Vapes are becoming the preferred method of consumption, and it would be disingenuous of us to do anything except fully understand the regulations and try to abide by them,” Pellerin said.