A new study published today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the weekly MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) bolsters the evidence that vitamin E acetate oil, rather than e-cigarettes, is causing the "vaping-associated" respiratory illness.
The study reports the results of laboratory testing conducted in the state of Minnesota, where 96 confirmed cases occurred through October 31. Here are the critical findings:
1. Of 58 patients interviewed, 53 (91%) reported the use of black market THC vape carts. A total of 14 reported using CBD products, of whom 11 stated that they used CBD products with illicit THC. Only 2 of the patients reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products.
2. Two patients reported using nicotine e-liquids exclusively, but were found to have THC in their lung fluids, confirming exposure to THC products.
3. Every vape cartridge recovered from a drug seizure in 2018 did not contain vitamin E acetate oil, while every vape cartridge recovered from a drug seizure in 2019 did contain vitamin E acetate oil.
4. Of the 12 patients from whom THC cartridges were obtained for testing, products used by 11 of them tested positive for vitamin E acetate. However, the 12th patient admitted to using Dank Vapes, but that was not included among the samples submitted for testing. In addition, every Dank Vapes cartridge tested contained vitamin E acetate oil.
The Rest of the Story
This study not only provides very strong evidence that vitamin E acetate oil, rather than e-cigarettes, is the cause of the outbreak, but it also helps to explain why approximately 10% of patients are not reporting the use of THC-containing products. For one, some of the patients are apparently using CBD products that may contain vitamin E acetate oil. Second, there is clearly substantial under-reporting occurring. Patients who reported using nicotine-containing liquids exclusively have nevertheless tested positive for THC and/or vitamin E acetate oil. Third, there is tremendous product multi-use occurring, so it is not clear that the reporting of nicotine-only product use is reliable.
The hardest evidence we have is that every single patient whose lung fluids were tested were found to have vitamin E acetate in the lungs and that every patient who used THC vape carts and submitted samples was found to have at least one cart that contained vitamin E acetate oil.
This is about the strongest imaginable evidence that one could possibly expect if the outbreak were due exclusively to vitamin E acetate oil.
Moreover, the findings of this study help explain the timing of the outbreak. The findings provide evidence that vitamin E acetate oil was not present in the illicit THC vape cart supply in 2018, but appeared extensively in the supply this year.
In addition, two-thirds of the case patients reported the use of a single common product - Dank Vapes - which was found to contain vitamin E acetate oil.
Furthermore, none of the nicotine-containing e-liquids was found to contain vitamin E acetate oil or any other toxicant of concern.
Based on these findings, the study recommends that people not use THC vape cartridges and not use black market vape cartridges, but does not provide a recommendation not to use legally purchased e-cigarettes.
This study provides a strong justification for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to rescind its emergency order banning the sale of nicotine-containing e-cigarettes at retail stores. It also confirms that there is no rational basis for the decision of several other states to issue emergency regulations banning the sale of traditional e-cigarettes at retail stores.