As the nationwide vaping crisis intensifies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Thursday that it is launching a criminal probe into the outbreak.
The FDA’s law enforcement branch, the Office of Criminal Investigations, is looking into the rash of vaping illnesses nationwide, Mitch Zeller, the director for the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, told the Washington Post.
Zeller suggested that the office would be focusing in particular on THC vape cartridges, specifically those bought off the black market, though he stressed that it would not be targeting people who bought such products. “The focus is on the supply chain,” he said, referring to those who manufacture and distribute bootleg THC cartridges.
Since earlier this summer, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and FDA have launched an investigation into a slew of vaping-related lung ailments. Patients have reported such symptoms as shortness of breath, persistent coughing, and chest pain, as well as vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 570 such ailments have been documented in 38 states, as well as more than seven vaping-related deaths.
In light of the swirl of media coverage surrounding vaping-related lung ailments, as well as President Trump’s statement last week indicating his administration was mulling a ban of flavored e-cigarettes, the revelation of the criminal probe is not exactly surprising, says Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver. “What it means is that [the FDA is] taking this epidemic seriously,” he tells Rolling Stone.
It’s unclear, however, what the precise scope of the FDA investigation is, or which companies and manufacturers are being targeted, especially considering that the CDC has not identified a single cause for the vaping-related illnesses so far.
Many, though not all, of the products implicated have been bootleg THC cartridges purchased off the black market, particularly in states where cannabis is illegal. And there’s some evidence to suggest that black-market cartridges cut with vitamin E acetate, a substance that is typically used in skin lotion or supplements that can be extremely harmful when inhaled, may be driving the trend.
In New York state, for instance, 10 out of 18 vape cartridges submitted to labs for analysis tested positive for the substance, which is used as a thickening agent by many THC vape manufacturers. At least three companies that distributed such thickening agents have been subpoenaed by New York state authorities thus far. A recent study from the University of Utah also suggested that vaping-related lung ailments may be a new form of lipid pneumonia, a rare condition caused by the inhalation of fat particles. Such a diagnosis “would be consistent with the dominant theory” that vitamin E acetate inhalation could be playing a role in the epidemic, the study’s lead author Scott Aberegg previously told Rolling Stone.
Many of the manufacturers distributing such thickening agents are “back alley black marketeers,” says Kamin, which makes it “hard to know how a systemic crackdown on black-market cartridges would work.” More to the point, by targeting black-market manufacturers, Kamin says he is concerned “that people will be driven further underground by these crackdowns,” thus putting consumers even more at risk.
Indeed, the fact that marijuana is illegal on a federal level seems to pose a significant obstacle in the CDC and FDA investigations. In a call with reporters, Illinois’ chief medical officer Jennifer Layten said that many of the patients did not share information about their vaping habits, either because they were too ill to speak with investigators or because they were concerned about being arrested as a result of illegal cannabis use.
For this reason, Kamin says, focusing a criminal investigation on vape cartridge manufacturers in general may only exacerbate the issue by driving the industry further underground. Additionally, states like New York and Michigan issuing flavored e-cigarette bans does not address what is increasingly looking to be the root of the problem. Instead of focusing on black market manufacturers or cracking down on vaping in general, “there’s a pretty compelling argument to be made that’s what is needed here is national standards” for regulation and federal legalization, he says.