The Drug Enforcement Administration for the first time will collect vaping devices and vaping cartridges on National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, as law enforcement joins health officials alarmed by a spate of apparent vaping-related deaths.
The annual event, which this year is slated for Saturday, traditionally focuses on emptying drug cabinets of expired prescription drugs or dangerous medications such as the opioid OxyContin.
“This year, we are taking a step further by accepting vaping devices and cartridges as we work with our federal partners to combat this emerging public health threat to the nation’s youth,” said acting DEA Administrator Uttam Dhillon.
At least 33 deaths across 24 states and 1,479 lung injuries have been tied to vaping, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Black market THC has been linked to the majority of cases, but the CDC won’t say if that is the main cause. Some lung illnesses have been reported by patients who only used nicotine vapes, so it is unclear if that is behind the illnesses.
Vaping groups worry, however, including devices in the take back is a step toward government overreach. They are concerned the DEA will start scrutinizing vaping products like narcotics.
“What we don’t want to see occur is a mission creep, wherein the DEA starts to believe they can act like the [Food and Drug Administration] and spend the public’s money on activities related to nicotine vaping products,” said Greg Conley, president of American Vaping Association, a nonprofit that advocates for sensible regulation of vaping products.
As the death toll quickly rises, U.S. officials have begun cracking down on vaping. Last month, the Trump administration forced e-cigarette companies to take flavored vaping products off the market hoping to reduce the allure for young people.
The FDA earlier this month strengthened its warning to stop using THC vaping products.
Now the government is attempting to tie e-cigarettes to opioids by including devices in National Drug Take Back Day, an annual event that allows the public to safely dispose of unwanted and expired medications.
“This may not have a lot of practical import, but it is something symbolic to let people know these devices can be taken back like any other drug,” said Dr. Richard Blondell, vice chairman for addiction medicine at the University of Buffalo.
“These things are drugs and people don’t look at it that way,” he continued. “It is a good way to alter public perception and raise awareness.”
Mr. Conley said that’s unfair. He noted the DEA will not accept devices containing lithium ion batteries, an important distinction he said.
Illicit THC cartridges sold on the street use lithium ion batteries, unlike nicotine devices, which run on internal batteries.
“The DEA should reassess how they communicate about vaping products, as we know many Americans do not recognize the dangers of using illicit THC vaping products,” he said. “Generalized messaging sends a dangerous message to adult smokers that vaping products warrant similar concerns to those for opioids and other illegal drugs.”
Mr. Conley said the lack of specificity is confusing the public by lumping together the illegal cartridges with legal devices.
“The DEA’s messaging could be greatly improved,” he said. “The majority of vaping devices contain internal batteries so rather than focus attention on standalone devices the DEA cannot dispose of, they should be offering specifically to dispose of vaping cartridges that may contain illegal drugs,” he said.
Erika Sward, an American Lung Association official, said she hopes the DEA’s message of linking vaping to drugs will sink in with high school students.
“I think, overall, this is a recognition that this is a very addictive and dangerous product for kids,” she said. “It doesn’t change what needs to be done from the FDA or Congress, but it certainly can ensure that adults who don’t want these products around anymore have a good way to get rid of them.”
Vaping has jumped dramatically among high school students, rising by nearly 21% between 2017 and 2018, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The total number of high school students who vape is expected to exceed 25% by the end of 2019.
The youngest patient linked to a vaping illness is 13, according to the CDC. It was reported last week a 16-year woman was placed on life support because of a vaping-related injury. It is not yet known if THC was a factor in their injuries.