THC scandal worse than COVID-19 for vape shops

Deaths caused by marijuana juices hit the e-cigarette industry more than the cannabis trade

E-cigarette sales in the US have fallen by 34% since autumn 2019. This is according to an analysis by ECig-intelligence. The reason is the turmoil surrounding the EVALI lung disease, which affected thousands of Americans after they vejpat illegal cannabis liquid.

"But despite the fact that regular nicotine e-cigarettes had nothing to do with the lung damage, the vejp industry took the hit. If we look at the decline of the cannabis industry, it's only a third as big." says Tim Phillips from the market research agency ECig-Intelligence at Global Forum on Nicotine 2020.

Over 60 died from e-acetate

In early August 2019, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) became aware of a growing number of cases of lung damage affecting people who had recently used vejpning to inhale THC products. It soon became clear that the illnesses, which killed around 60 people, were caused by the substance E-acetate. E-acetate is a thickening agent that can be used to dilute cannabis oil in e-juice.

"Basically, it's about making the juice thicker, which usually signals a more potent blend for cannabis users" says Tim Phillips.

E-acetate is prohibited for use in the legal production of THC/cannabis juice. It has long been recognised in the industry when heated, the substance forms an oil-like substance in the lungs. E-acetate is also not used in standard nicotine e-juice.

Mixing nicotine with cannabis

However, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is responsible for providing information on diseases in the community, was unclear. Initially, the agency announced that 'regular' e-cigarettes could be behind the lung damage. The disease was named EVALI - E-cigarette and Vaping related Lung Injury. And the media were quick to follow, says Tim Phillips.

"The reporting was more about young people using e-cigarettes, about flavourings and a general criticism of the failure of the US to regulate vejp products. The problem of cannabis and vejpning was overshadowed" says Tim Phillips.

Even Donald Trump got involved in the debate. In September, he threatened to to ban flavoured e-juice throughout the country. However, he soon backed away from this.

"But the damage was already done, you could say. At local level, several states chose to introduce restrictions on flavours and on e-cigarettes containing nicotine. Smaller businesses were hit hard, while the public perception of e-cigarettes became more negative. According to several companies we've been in contact with, they've been hit harder by this than by the coronavirus epidemic," says Tim Phillips.

E-cigs lost - cannabis flourished

The US market for e-cigarettes plummeted. From an estimated increase of 20 per cent, ECig-Intelligence now expects sales to fall by almost 15 per cent. Globally, the corresponding analysis points to an overall decline of 14%.

"But when we look at the market for cannabis products, intended for vejpning, we see something completely different. It's growing faster among young people than nicotine vejpning. During the same period as the EVALI outbreak, that market showed a decline of just six per cent. Then it became stable. Which is strange, because it was actually products in the cannabis category that caused EVALI." says Tim Phillips.

Influencing legislation worldwide

But the trend to restrict access to different nicotine-bearing vejp products has only just begun, says Tim Phillips. This is happening all over the world, with the THC scandal winning the debate.

"The events in the US have influenced legislation all over the world. Bans on online sales in China, flavour bans in Denmark are just a few examples. And several international communities are now discussing policies to further restrict access" says Tim Phillips.

Interest in quitting smoking remains

At the same time, the availability of other smokeless nicotine products is increasing. Tobacco-free snus and heat not burn technology (from tobacco giant Philip Morris) have taken market share. And that's something that will matter when the market stabilises, says Tim Phillips.

"Consumers still want alternatives to cigarettes and that is a positive news in this context. I think e-cigarettes will be an important part of that development. But other players and products have filled the void left by the EVALI crisis", says Tim Phillips.

Tim Phillips - presenting the EVALI crisis and its impact worldwide (Global Forum on Nicotine 2020)

Vejkollen has written several articles on the THC scandal in the USA:
Harm from e-acetate found in the US
Two Swedes bought illegal THC juice - suffered lung damage
Trump backs down on flavour ban - black market concerns
How Swedish companies were affected by the vejp crisis

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