FDA discloses criminal probe into vaping health crisis, putting added scrutiny on cannabis industry

(This story has been updated to reflect that an eighth person has died from a vaping-related lung illness.)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has launched a criminal investigation into the vaping health crisis, bringing added scrutiny to the state-legal marijuana industry and potentially exposing companies to federal legal action.

“The industry should be worried,” said Washington DC-based cannabis attorney Emily Leongini, who worked for the FDA for nearly six years.

Mitch Zeller, director of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, told reporters at a press conference Thursday in Washington that the focus of the criminal investigation is on the supply chain.

“We’re very alarmed about products containing THC,” Zeller said.

E-cigarettes and legal and illegal cannabis vape products are all being looked at as possible causes for the outbreak.

The number of people sickened from vaping has risen to at least 530, with eight deaths, according to federal officials. Incidents have been reported in 38 states and one U.S. territory.

Cannabis industry officials have fingered black-market THC products as the culprit.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “Most patients have reported a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC. Many patients have reported using THC and nicotine. Some have reported the use of e-cigarette products containing only nicotine.”

Worries mount

The FDA and the CDC typically work closely on a public health-related outbreak of any FDA-regulated product, such as e-cigarettes, Leongini told Marijuana Business Daily.

Although this sort of dual investigation is routine, that doesn’t mean the cannabis market shouldn’t be concerned.

Leongini pointed to a lack of regulatory oversight, particularly of the supply chain, which has many potential risks.

She doesn’t believe the FDA is making a clear distinction between products sold on the legal or illicit markets.

In the eyes of the FDA, “just because it’s regulated by a state doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe,” she added.

Problem additives

The FDA is testing more than 150 samples for a broad range of chemicals, including nicotine, THC, cutting agents and other substances.

Cannabis testing labs across the country are developing tests for vitamin E acetate, an additive to vape cartridges that may be related to the illnesses.

“We know it’s not cannabis that’s dangerous,” said Nic Easley, CEO of cannabis industry consultancy 3C.

“It’s pesticides, residual solvents, vitamin E, reintroduced terpenes, viscous solutions like propylene glycol.”

Easley advised that cannabis companies now doing business in the vape market should avoid:

  • Low-quality hardware.
  • Viscous solutions that are known to be dangerous.
  • Reintroducing terpenes even if they’re hemp-derived.
  • Artificial flavors like those in e-cigarettes.

Easley posited the negative impact of the vaping health scare could have a marked ripple effect on what is likely to become a “huge sector” for the market.

“The waves of this are going to be catastrophic for many of the consumer packaged goods companies,” he said. 

“The major challenge for companies raising capital currently is that there’s going to be risk and exposure now.”

Easley pointed out that this added scrutiny could be a learning moment for vape businesses in the industry.

“It causes us to grow up and evolve,” he added.

“It’s vitally needed at our stage in industry growth.”

For more of Marijuana Business Daily’s ongoing coverage of the vaping crisis, click here.

Bart Schaneman can be reached at [email protected]

10 comments on “FDA discloses criminal probe into vaping health crisis, putting added scrutiny on cannabis industry
  1. kevin weber on

    The Regulators have to take some ownership in not being in front of the problem. Grey and black markets need to be closed, the legal industry players given clear direction and the bad actors removed. A poorly regulated and defined market is a train wreck for all of the above board players.

    CBD is now being vaped and the FDA has not been progressive in in the space contributing to a lot of the confusion. At the same time, bad actors will always see gaps in the legal landscape and fill them.

  2. Jeff l on

    You know good luck with finding the source. The longer time goes by the harder it is to find the real people behind the problem.
    If the government wants to nip this in the bud(no pun intended) they would get on the ball with regulation.
    Create jobs and a guide to keep the BS out of the industry and monitor the company’s that produce the vape.
    I think the real people behind the industry want a solid plan or guide to follow so this type of crap doesn’t happen anymore and they can rest easy knowing they are following the regulation to the T.
    Just a thought.
    Lets get real for a minute.
    Cannabis isn’t going anywhere whether it’s legal or not. People will get it from somewhere.They’ve been doing it for a long time.
    If they stop producing THC AND CBD vape
    THE BLACK MARKET WILL BE VERY EXCITED ABOUT THIS.It will be opening the door for them. And the fact that vape has been around for years and there hasn’t been any real issues until now. Makes me wonder who’s really is in the woodpile.
    It could very well be that it’s a conspiracy to undermine the industry.
    Think about the millions of people that have used vape products for years and had no issues. Why now when things are going well for this to happen.
    It’s sad that 530 people have gotten sick and 8 people have died. But millions and millions have used vape with no negative effects. I still think it’s Black Market behind it.

    • Maxcatski on

      Well, that’s a theory. A conspiracy theory, that is.

      Occam’s razor says this is the natural outcome of inhaling bad stuff. And the bad stuff was created for a profit.

      Ever hear of the opioid crisis? No conspiracy necessary.

      • The Truth Badger on

        Actually you are wrong… The crack epidemic back in the 90s was created by a well known government agency. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the opioid crisis was created by the same government agency. I would also not be surprised that all this stuff is happening right when the president goes after Vaping.. it’s not even always the government.. it’s big businesses like huge Tabacco companies that are losing so much money to the Vaping industry and the new cannibus industry.. they have people that would easily poison black market cannibus just to create a panic and gain back customers.. big businesses are ruthless and don’t give (care) about people.. being a good businessman now days is the exact opposite of being a good moral human being.. conspiracies are real ladies and gentlemen and they do happen.. however this might just be a straight up business decision made by big Tabacco, no conspiracy needed.

    • Philipe on

      I understand your frustration with the lack of regulation in the vaping market, and if it makes people feel better to blame the black market growers so be it. There all used to it but please remember that a lot of those folks started the movement to legalize cannibus. The problems with the cannabis now is being mass produced in a controlled and lab environment with chemicals to effect yields and thc / cbd levels these Frankenstein grown cannibus will have side effects.

  3. Thomas Walsh on

    “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has launched a criminal investigation into the vaping health crisis, bringing added scrutiny to the state-legal marijuana industry and potentially exposing companies to federal legal action.”

    “Cannabis industry officials have fingered black-market THC products as the culprit.”

    Vaping health crisis? 7 people dying is nowhere near epidemic numbers, more people die from choking on food..

    Keep in mind, the people who have died of gotten ill are of due to ILLEGAL and ADULTERATED THC oil cartridges. In the 15 years nicotine-based vaping products have been around, it has been claimed to be 95% safer than traditional tobacco products (Royal College of Physicians).

    The US states are losing money with vaping on the rise and now it’s starting to make bigger dents in tobacco sales.

    • Jeff l on

      Anyone heard of the MASTER SETTLEMENT MONEY.
      This is what big tobacco gives to the government every year for damages done. (Billions)
      They’ll lose money if everyone turns to vaping and in the end most quit. They don’t want people screwing up there money. They sit and say they don’t want people smoking. Quite the contrary. If everyone quits smoking they lose billions….it all makes sense.
      Bunch of BS as usual.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *