A rash of deaths and illnesses linked to vaping may have been caused by toxins added to the nicotine and marijuana-laced smoking devices to increase profits or serve as a thickening agent.
The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently identified “vitamin E acetate” as a “very strong culprit” in vaping-related drug injuries that have sickened 2,000 people and killed 29.
Vaping remains the latest craze among teenagers, since the pen-like devices produce little smoke and allow teens to smoke covertly — even on campus.
Although conventional drug use among teens has generally declined, vaping has soared, according to recent surveys. About half of teens use alcohol and about 25 percent use e-cigarettes or vape THC. A somewhat smaller percentage smoke pot or cigarettes.
Vaping use has jumped among teens — in part because of the flavored smoke laced with nicotine or THC, the psycho-active ingredient in marijuana.
The toxins were mostly added to unregulated vaping products, mostly obtained from friends or on the street. The CDC verified vitamin E acetate in the lungs of 29 patients who had the potentially fatal reaction. The scientists did not rule out the possibility that other toxins may also be present.
The doctors also tested for plant oils, petroleum distillates and other substances.
Most of the patients tested were younger than 35 and 86 percent said they vaped THC-laced products. Most obtained the products from friends or on the street.
The vitamin E acetate increases profits by diluting the THC and serving as a thickening agent.
Vaping now accounts for about 30 percent of the market for legalized marijuana, with a rising number of teens drawn to the products — which are flavored, mild and easy to hide.
The legalization of marijuana in 10 states created a market for vaping THC, which is extracted from the whole marijuana plant by various methods and reduced to an oil that can be vaporized. The products can add other ingredients — like propylene glycol used in fog machines — to create smoke.
However, marijuana remains a federally controlled substance, which has sharply limited research into the health effects of THC and other additives to vaping.
E-cigarettes have undergone more research. Studies show vaping either THC or nicotine produces fewer harmful carcinogens and potentially harmful chemicals than either joints or cigarettes. However, nicotine remains one of the most powerfully addictive substances and the brew of chemicals in THC vaping products remains largely unstudied. Both substances have a more pronounced effect on the developing brains of teenagers than on older adults.
Meanwhile, the legalization of marijuana in many states has led to a big rise in the supply and a drop in prices. A RAND Corporation research paper said that an oversupply of marijuana in Oregon after legalization cut prices by 50 percent, from $1,200 a pound to $500 a pound. Some of the extra supply has affected prices in the illegal marijuana markets as well.
About 35 percent of Gila County teens say drugs are readily available to them and about half say they don’t think drug use poses much of a risk — figures in line with the state average, according to the annual, 2018 survey of risk behavior by teens.
Many Gila County eighth-graders have already tried cigarettes, e-cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana. By the 12th grade, about 60 percent have tried alcohol, 50 percent have tried marijuana or e-cigarettes and 40 percent have tried regular cigarettes.
The number of 12th-graders who have used drugs in the last 30 days is lower — 45 percent for alcohol, 25 percent for e-cigarettes, 22 percent for cigarettes and about 25 percent for marijuana. In most cases, use of those drugs by Gila County teens is at or above the state average. A full 20 percent of Gila County 12th-graders report an episode of binge drinking in the past 30 days.
The survey included a question about where teens obtained marijuana, which would include THC vaping products. Some 60 percent said they got the drug from a friend, 28 percent from someone with a medical marijuana card, 22 percent from family, 26 percent at a party, 24 percent at school and 17 percent from a dispensary.
By most measures, alcohol remains a bigger problem for Gila County teens than marijuana. When asked where they got their alcohol, 40 percent said at a party, 32 percent gave someone money to buy booze, 19 percent stole it from their own home, 15 percent from a parent or guardian, 18 percent from another adult relative and the rest from assorted sources.