In September 2019, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began reporting of a mysterious outbreak of “vaping related” lung injuries predominately occurring in Wisconsin. By late February 2020, over 2,700 cases had been reported across all 50 states with a confirmed 64 fatalities.
Over the nearly six-month timeframe, the CDC issued multiple public health warnings strongly recommending the avoidance of any vaping product. Since the overwhelming majority of average Americans automatically assumes that vapor products are nicotine-based only, the CDC’s actions wrongly implied that conventional vapes were potentially deadly.
The lung disorder would even be inaccurately renamed as EVALI – an acronym for e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury, and the intriguing “CDC discovery” attracted mainstream and social media outlets to push ferociously the “vaping kills teenagers” narrative. What followed was an onslaught of gubernatorial executive orders from New York to California implementing immediate bans the sales of flavored vapes.
CDC peddles in vaping disinformation for almost six months
By February 25, 2020, the CDC was forced to acknowledge its mistake. After an extensive internal investigation involving interviews of hundreds of EVALI patients, they had finally determined that nicotine-based vapes had nothing whatsoever to do with the EVALI outbreak. Rather, the true case was contraband, THC-infused cartridges containing an obscure dilutive, vitamin E acetate. After months of aggressive anti-vaping rhetoric, the CDC quietly and without fanfare by the mainstream media launched a press release stating the following.
“Due to continued declines in new EVALI cases since September 2019, and the identification of vitamin E acetate as a primary cause of EVALI, today’s release is the final biweekly CDC update on the number of hospitalized EVALI cases and deaths nationally. CDC will continue to provide assistance to states, as needed, related to EVALI and will provide future updates as needed at: www.cdc.gov/lunginjury.”
Along the way, the EVALI scandal even attracted the attention of the First Lady and the President of the United States. By mid-November 2019, Mr. Trump was holding a White House meeting to discuss the possible ramifications of a nationwide vaping ban.
President Trump weighs in
Invited guests included members of the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the medical community, anti-vaping lobbyist groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and even executives from JUUL. Also in attendance were members of the vaping advocacy community, chiefly Gregory Conley of the American Vaping Association (AVA) and Tony Abboud of the Vapor Technology Association (VTA).
As the White House meeting unfolded, Mr. Conley grew more and more frustrated about the amounts of disinformation that he was hearing from anti-vapers like Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and the president’s political advisor Kellyanne Conway. It was at this point that Mr. Conley told the President that nicotine-based vapes are incapable of causing the lung damage associated with EVALI due to e-liquid’s simplified ingredient contents.
Conley also made the rather strong point that nicotine-based vapor products are nothing new. The EVALI disorder, on the other hand, clearly was. Therefore, the causational link had to be something else, namely cartridges illegally being sold and purchased on the black market.
While Conley’s arguments appear to be a substantial contributing factor to Trump’s changing his mind on a nationwide vape ban, he admittedly was not responsible for the data involving vitamin E acetate and EVALI. That remarkable breakthrough came from an internal, months-long investigation conducted by the marijuana-advocacy magazine Leafly…an investigation that was finalized several months prior to Donald Trump’s White House meeting and nearly six months prior to CDC’s aforementioned press release.
The Leafly Magazine investigation into EVALI
As far back as September 24, 2019 – just as the mainstream media was first learning of EVALI – Leafly Magazine was already warning its readership about the dangers of “street-purchased” vapor cartridges. During its lengthy investigation, the Leafly team led by California bureau chief David Downs was able to successfully identify a contaminated supply chain that began in the manufacturing centers of China, traveled through the wholesale businesses of Los Angeles, and spread among potentially thousands of cartridge-filling operations throughout the United States.
The Downs team pointed out the ease with which the average American at the time could legally purchase both nicotine solutions and THC oils on Amazon and other reputable e-commerce sites. Just buy a few thousand empty cartridges, and an enterprising criminal could make millions.
Indeed, this is precisely what happened to a pair of brothers in Wisconsin, the epicenter of the EVALI outbreak in the United States. Once again in early September 2019, NBC News reported of the arrests of Taylor and Jacob Huffhines over allegations of operating an illegal business involving the sales and marketing of “professionally packaged cartridges” using illegally-obtained THC oils.
The Leafly investigation was detailed, thorough, and somewhat alarming. By wandering the streets of Los Angeles, they were able to spot thousands of discarded counterfeit JUUL pods and other used cartridges, especially in the local Toy District. They identified hundreds of “dingy, poorly lit,” storefronts “stocked with disheveled, half-open cardboard boxes and sales racks” of contraband oils. And the Leafly team even discovered how these black market vendors laundered their money.
What Leafly Magazine was able to accomplish during its investigation is nothing short of amazing. The trouble is that they had already solved the supposedly mysterious case of EVALI well before the CDC even knew about it. In fact, Leafly Magazine published their story on September 24, 2019 just as news of the EVALI outbreak was first breaking, which means that their international investigation must have begun at least several months prior.
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