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How tech could prevent another vaping illness outbreak

One app maker wants to put more control in the hands of consumers.

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Vaping is a popular delivery method for cannabis.

Tom Eversley / EyeEm / Getty Images

E-cigarettes promised a safer alternative to smoking tobacco, but over the last few months, doctors have established a clear link between vaping and lung disease. As of Dec. 17, the illness had claimed 54 lives in 27 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, over 2,500 people had been hospitalized for vaping-related lung damage. Tech companies aim to help turn those stats around.

While vape pens have been on the US market for about a decade, Juul Labs' USB-sized vaporizer made them skyrocket to popularity in 2015.  After several vaping-related illnesses broke out in 2019, federal health officials reported that tests conducted on the lung fluid of 29 sick patients revealed the presence of vitamin E acetate, an additive in some THC-containing products. By December, the CDC said it was confident that the additive in black market marijuana products was strongly linked to the illness. 

Though officials can't say that vitamin E acetate is definitely the cause of the vaping-related illnesses, the number of people visiting emergency rooms for lung injuries has declined since the connection was made, according to the Chicago Tribune last year. However, it's unlikely that people will stop using e-cigarettes -- even as the FDA reportedly plans to ban flavored products for cartridge-based vapes -- or stop using THC products in their vapes, for that matter. So some tech firms are looking to fill the gap and provide tracking and transparency across supply chains to ensure consumer safety and prevent another illness outbreak.  

Seed-to-sale tracking

As with any product, it's important to know where your cannabis comes from. Though multiple states have legalized marijuana for recreational and/or medicinal use, possession remains a criminal offense in other states. To further aid in cannabis gaining legitimacy, everything must be transparent, accountable and tracked, said Jessica Billingsley, co-founder and CEO of Akerna, a cannabis compliance technology company.

Akerna worked with anti-counterfeiting tech company Solo Sciences to create a system to better track THC. The Solo Code is a graphic tag that integrates with Akerna's seed-to-sale system. Consumers can scan the Solo Code on a product with their smartphone in the Solo app. The app then deciphers the product's unique code and, if the grower is part of the Solo ecosystem, can tell the consumer where the product was grown, when it was harvested, and any lab results from testings -- serving the entire supply chain. 

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Akerna says seed-to-sale tracking provides transparency for consumers.

John Kim/CNET

"Our technology starts with the growers, moves to the manufacturers that are turning [cannabis] into different products, to distributors, to retailers," Billingsley said. Since the platform was released in 2010, it has tracked more than $17 billion in legal cannabis sales, according to the company.

Akerna is not alone in this field: Companies including Helix BioTrack and Trellis also provide software that offers seed-to-sale cannabis tracking. 

Read more: Vaping: FDA to ban sale of flavored cartridge-based products

The federal-state conflict over marijuana legalization has fueled the thriving illicit market for cannabis in the US, Billingsley said. Products bought on the illicit market can look as sophisticated as those available for purchase in the compliant market. However, products for sale on the illicit market mean consumers have a higher likelihood of encountering unwanted additives or ingredients -- which could lead to disease outbreaks like what we saw last year.  CNET reached out to the US Department of Health and Human Services for comment and we'll update when we hear back.

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More than 54 people in 27 states and the District of Columbia have died from vaping-related illnesses. 

Rapeepong Puttakumwong / Getty Images

Keeping track of all of the ingredients in these substances will continue to be important as new technology and delivery methods are developed in the future. Technology like Akerna can help draw correlations between cases in the event of a health concern, and help lead to an appropriate recall, Billingsly said. 

Billingsley compared the vaping illness outbreak to the government's response to the romaine lettuce E.coli outbreak in early 2019. "It took the FDA weeks to work to narrow down the sources of that [romaine] contamination without 100% accuracy," she said. "We have the technology to do it much more quickly." 

In a similar vein, companies including Walmart are now using blockchain platforms to track food as it moves from farm to store shelf, to better pinpoint issues and prevent illness. 

The need for consistent compliance 

It might sound like common sense to monitor the ingredients in a product from start to finish, but Billingsley said standard practice compliance varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some states require vertical integration -- with cannabis, that means the product is regulated and licensed by a state health department or similar governing agency. The department or agency has to control every aspect of the operation: cultivation, manufacturing, transportation, distribution and dispensary. Testing for additives can also fall into this list of responsibilities.

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In some states, cannabis is regulated and licensed by a state health Department or similar governing agency.

Bloomberg Creative Photos / Getty Images

Read more: How the marijuana industry is organized in legal states (ZDNet) 

One state that requires vertical integration is Massachusetts. Others states like Alaska, Arizona and Maryland allow vertical integration but don't require it. California, however, uses horizontal integration. This means manufacturing, dispensing and distribution are all considered separate business activities. Testing and transporting are also meant to be separate.

Most areas still don't require that additives be tracked, Billingsley said. 

Empowering educated consumers

Even in the absence of a system like Akerna's Solo Code tag or one offered by another company, you can still protect yourself against purchasing products with potentially harmful additives. 

"Consumers can begin to ask, be an educated consumer, even in a state or jurisdiction that hasn't yet required this," Billingsley said. "They can ask, 'Do you report on all your ingredients? Do you have the Solo transparency mark?'"

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Vaping is one of several delivery methods for cannabis.

Jamie Grill/ Getty Images

One thing that won't help, according to Billingsley, is an outright vaping ban. Before the FDA and President Donald Trump said they were considering a ban on flavored vaping products, states were enacting their own bans.

"Banning vaping pushes people back to the illicit market where they have a higher likelihood of tainted or contaminated products," Billingsley said. Tracking could be a simpler and more effective solution, she added. 

Despite the negative attention around vaping marijuana, there hasn't been much blowback in terms of the continuing state decisions to legalize THC, Billingsley said. As a result of the vaping illness news, there's been a reduction in some vape purchases, but an increase in other product delivery methods, she added. 

"Vaping is a relatively new technology, and as with a lot of relatively new technology, as there are things that we still need to learn," Billingsley said. "The most important thing to know is that you can take the power into your own hands. Ask the dispensary what additives are in their products. Just start asking the questions, and do it whenever possible."

Originally published Jan. 22 at 9:11 a.m. PT.
Update, at 1:15 p.m. PT: Adds request for comment sent to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.