Smoke and fire: How vaping-related illnesses created a panic in Canada

Only 11 cases have been confirmed by Health Canada, but without a clear understanding of the causes, fear and confusion have filled the air

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With only weeks until vape pens legally go on sale in Canada, the cannabis industry is still feeling the blowback from the rash of vape-related illnesses to hit North America over the summer.

Hundreds of cases of vaping-associated pulmonary illness, or VAPI, have been reported in the United States. Among them have been some three dozen deaths.

But in Canada, only 11 cases of VAPI have been confirmed by Health Canada.

Nonetheless, Ontario has banned the advertising of vape products in convenience stores (a plan Doug Ford had previously scrapped). Quebec has banned vape pens outright. So has Newfoundland and Labrador. Nova Scotia has banned e-cigarettes. And last month, British Columbia slapped a 20 per cent tax on all vaping devices and products. The tax includes dry herb vapes, which are a class apart from the vape pens being fingered for most of the vape-related illnesses.

Apple has also removed all vaping-related apps from its App Store.

Is the reaction warranted? There has been no shortage of ink spilled on the subject, even while the causes of VAPI are still unclear.

However, one thing connects all of the cases – illicit-market vape cartridges.

On Friday (December 6), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a list linking more than half of the illnesses in the U.S. to cartridges purchased online from one Chinese manufacturer.

But without a clear understanding of the causes of VAPI, fear and confusion have filled the air in Canada.

Many have pointed to illegal vape cartridges as the main culprit. But stray reports of legal vape pens producing illnesses in Oregon were enough to raise doubts.

Some 700 vape-pen products are pending the green light from Health Canada. But we haven’t heard much about them. The problem for pot producers is one of optics.

“There is an optic of safety in vaping, where consumers believe it is a safer option to combustion,” says John Kagia of the cannabis industry analytics firm New Frontier Data.

Indeed. Things got worse for the cannabis industry in Canada after details of the first reported case of VAPI emerged in September. A 17-year-old from Ontario missed having to have a double-lung transplant and spent months hooked up to a ventilator after he had reportedly been vaping nicotine and THC.

Pot company execs are now offering the public reassurances. But only Canopy Growth has issued a full product reveal in Canada. The company has been the most vocal defender of vape products. This week, Canopy’s chief technology officer Peter Popplewell called Apple’s decision to remove vape-related apps from its app store “a bit of a knee-jerk reaction that really stems from the unregulated space that is in the U.S. right now.”

The Ontario Cannabis Store, the province’s online retailer, has struck a more neutral tone. It says it “expects federally licensed producers to take accountability for ensuring products comply with all regulatory requirements.”

What damage the controversy around vaping may do won’t be clear until products actually go on sale later this month. Vape nation awaits with bated breath.