As Vape-Related Illnesses Climb Nationwide, Arizona’s Industry Hones Its Messaging

Vape pen cartridges.
Vape pen cartridges. The Vape Guide
Medical cannabis industry leaders in a downtown Phoenix panel on vaping-related illnesses this week were called to establish the truth amid vaping fears. They spent much of their time establishing their own innocence.

“We’re really the good guys,” Copperstate Farms CEO Pankaj Talwar announced at a crowded Marijuana Industry Trade Association meeting on Wednesday, October 23. “It’s the black market that’s creating this fiasco for all of us.”

Talwar was one of six representatives on the panel, all of whom argued that amid explosive media reports and rising numbers of vape-related illnesses, companies that aren’t proactive about educating and reassuring scared customers could stand to lose everything.

CEO of Star House Distribution Alex Sternheim opened the panel by saying the illnesses were “exclusively identified” in unlicensed and black-market products, a claim still unconfirmed by the state or federal governments. He said the industry had a responsibility to “set the lexicon” and correct myths and media misunderstandings about the safety of licensed products.

Though the panelists later walked back their comments and agreed there are still some bad actors in a less-regulated industry like Arizona’s — cannabis lab testing isn't required for another year — they primarily aimed to clarify that their own licensed products were safe, and that illicit, unlicensed vape pens and cartridges were the real cause of the problem.

Their efforts come as the number of people afflicted by a mysterious vaping-related illness across the United States is consistently climbing. More than 1,600 people have fallen ill from vaping THC or nicotine since March, with 34 resulting in death, the CDC said Thursday.

click to enlarge Vape panelists at the MITA-AZ meeting. - DEMITRI DOWNING
Vape panelists at the MITA-AZ meeting.
Demitri Downing
The exact cause of the illnesses is still unknown, though research suggests that most of the cases involve THC, and that certain additives found in black-market vape products, such as Vitamin E acetate and heavy metals, are part of the problem.

Arizona has seen 12 confirmed vaping illness cases so far, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, and while no deaths have been reported, some patients have come close. As recently as October 8, a 16-year-old Phoenix resident went into cardiac arrest and then a coma after what her mother told local media was two years of using vape products. On Thursday, two weeks since the teen's initial hospitalization, her mother, Betty Ford, told Phoenix New Times that her daughter is “still not strong.”

At Wednesday’s panel, business owners representing brands like Copperstate Farms, C4 Laboratories, Star House Distribution, iLava, and Select wanted to make it clear that their own products underwent rigorous testing and avoided risky additives. But they also acknowledged that amid all the fear and uncertainty in the public around vaping right now, setting a clearer standard for product safety might be prudent.

“It’s impacting people’s psyche,” Talwar said. “So my real opinion is that we, as industry leaders, need to create a recommendation of what it takes to get a seal that we align to.”

Until a testing protocol is determined, panelists agreed, customers should have conversations with their suppliers to learn what’s in the products they’re buying and how they can be sure that they’re safe.

Manufacturers and distributors of medical marijuana concentrates and vape products at the MITA-AZ event said they hadn’t yet seen a drop in sales.

The state's nicotine vape industry hasn't been so fortunate. Steve Johnson, executive director of Arizona Smoke Free Business Alliance, said vape stores involved with his trade association have lost 30 to 60 percent of their business since the Trump administration announced it would ban flavored vape products.

click to enlarge Amanda Rice, owner of Vape Escapes, stands in front of her emptying shelves. She's stopped ordering inventory, since her store will close its doors permanently on October 31. - ALI SWENSON
Amanda Rice, owner of Vape Escapes, stands in front of her emptying shelves. She's stopped ordering inventory, since her store will close its doors permanently on October 31.
Ali Swenson
“It’s pretty disheartening,” Johnson said. He confirmed at least two vape stores in the state are shutting down because of loss of sales.

Amanda Rice’s store, Vape Escapes in Glendale, is one of those. It’s set to close down on October 31 after losing around 60 percent of its business over a couple of months. Her store used to get some 20 to 25 customers a day, but now, “we’re lucky to have four,” she said.

Rice says most customers have told her they’re trying to quit over health concerns, or fears that vaping will soon be banned. Johnson and Rice both said the products in vape stores throughout Arizona are carefully regulated, but educating the public about that has been an uphill battle.

“We’re really working,” Johnson said. “We’re doing all the work we can to the media, trying to reassure customers that we know what’s in our products.”

Meanwhile, they’re up against national entities such as the FDA, which warns consumers not to use any vaping products containing THC, legally licensed or otherwise.

The Arizona Department of Health Services is investigating the vape-related illness cases in the state, but as far as identifying a common cause, "We're still not there yet, unfortunately," according to Chris Minnick, the agency's public information officer.
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Ali Swenson was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.