Vape sales shrug off EVALI epidemic, COVID-19



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Americans can’t put down quality vape pens.

Sales of the small, battery-powered devices for aerosolizing THC oil shrugged off 2019’s vaping-associated pulmonary injuries (dubbed VAPI, or EVALI). Then vape sales weathered two waves of COVID-19 in 2020. This October, legal vape cartridge and pen sales are back to last year’s peaks, analysts report.

Popular to a fault

Vape cartridges are just too practical, it seems. The 10-year-old devices imported from the e-cigarette world solve cannabis’ two biggest problems: how to measure your dose, and avoid smelling like pot.

According to BDS analytics, THC vape cartridge sales peaked in the summer of 2019 before falling off in the face of VAPI. Quality control in the illicit THC vape market had gotten so low, at least 68 people died and 2,809 were injured in what the CDC mislabeled an ‘epidemic.’

Due to testing and regulations, legal state markets proved ten times safer than illegal states.

VAPI is not infectious. The US’ lung injury clusters came to a halt after a Leafly investigation identified the culprit: Toxic cutting agents in illicit-market vape cartridges. Chasing profits, illicit pen factories diluted THC oil with higher and higher amounts of cosmetics creams and dietary oils. Vitamin E oil and squalene are the ringleaders of a gang of heavy, oily, toxic diluent thickeners hiding in illicit vapes.

Due to testing and regulations, legal state markets proved ten times safer than illegal states. Street vape injuries continued into 2020, albeit at a lower level. As long as Americans purchase untested vape cartridges, some will be harmed by a burning cocktail of heavy metals, drugs, cutting agents, pesticides, and solvent.

However, in the licensed trade, state-regulated lab testing makes consumers feel safe enough to return to the THC vape market.

Surpassing prior peaks

In a study of five legal states, the Colorado-based cannabis data firm BDS Analytics found vape sales peaked at $160 million a month in July 2019, and then fell to $126 million by October 2019.

Vape sales were flat when COVID hit this spring, and sales dropped to a new low of $117 million in April 2020.

Now it’s October 2020, and we’re back to $160 million and beyond.

“Vape products seem on track to reach and surpass their late summer 2019 peak in the near future,” BDS stated in August 25.

Clawing back to last year’s peak. (BDS Analytics, August, 2020)

On the most popular list

Wholesale cannabis marketplace LeafLink said vapes sales are up 89% from their September 2019 low.

“In fact, cartridges have been one of the most popular product categories on LeafLink this year,” said Alex Feldman, general manager of LeafLink Insights.

Vapes are one-fifth of all orders through LeafLink this year. Vape cartridges, as well as all-in-one disposable pens, averaged 7% growth month over month in 2020, second only to flower, Feldman said.

A refocus on quality

The latest Pew Research poll finds 66% of voters approve of cannabis legalization. In part, that’s because legal markets come with toughest-in-the-world vape regulations.

In terms of pesticides, a 0.5-gram California Raw Garden vape cart is cleaner than organic strawberries. That’s as it should be. You don’t apply organic strawberries to lung tissue.

Consumers have gotten the message to buy quality when it comes to your lungs, sellers said.

Amid the coronavirus, surveys show shoppers across the US have broadly become more suspicious of unknown brands.

The PAX Era pod system in legal states. (Grant Hindsley for Leafly)
The PAX Era pod system in legal states. (Grant Hindsley for Leafly)

At the US market-leading PAX Labs in San Francisco, sales of their PAX Era pod systems took a VAPI hit, only to recover and surge, said Dominic O’Brien, chief revenue officer at PAX Labs.

“Many of our retail partners have noticed a significant shift toward brands like PAX and others that prioritize transparency, and health and safety.”

“We found that once consumers understood that the vape-related illnesses of last year were the result of the illicit market—not the regulated one—we saw the category start to rebound quickly, due to consumer preferences for portability, ease of use and as an alternative to smoking.”

California vape cart market leader AbsoluteXtracts also saw consumers return with renewed focus.

“Last year’s vaping crisis impacted ABX sales as fear and confusion around the illnesses kept a lot of customers on the sidelines,” said Kial Long, vice president of corporate communications at CannaCraft, Inc. “Now that we know the dangerous vape products originated from the illicit market and contained harmful and untested ingredients, our vape sales have rebounded and we even picked up new customers looking for reputable, trusted, and legal vape brands like ABX.”

College towns, tourist destinations still down

A PAX Era makes a cameo in Amazon’s most-watched original series ‘The Boys’ season 2 this fall, but vapes remain MIA in tourist destinations, and college towns.

LeafLink said Nevada’s vape market hasn’t recovered from COVID. A tourism collapse halved vape sales in Sin City.

Over near UC Berkeley in California, America’s oldest dispensary, Berkeley Patients Group, has not seen vape sales fully recover. Berkeley residents are older and more health conscious. Meanwhile, the invulnerable college crowd has not returned.

“While BPG continues to be a trusted source for safe, quality-controlled products, we have not seen the demand for cartridges return to pre-EVALI levels. Part of this has to do with COVID, including the closing of UC Berkeley, but it’s hard to make a real assessment at this point. That said, we have noticed an uptick in Indica edibles in the past six to seven months,” said Sabrina Fendrick, chief public affairs officer.

Flower is even bigger

Lastly, vape sales might be back to past peaks, but they’re a smaller share of overall cannabis sales, which exploded during COVID, BDS finds.

COVID lockdowns, stimulus checks, staycations, and election anxiety boosted weed sales across the US.

“For the seventh month in a row this year, flower led in market share in August 2020,” said LeafLink.

The shine is off the apple-flavored Dank Vape. Old-school buds are natural, and come with more long-term health data.

Flower’s 2020 sales bump extends to flower-based vaporizers, which combine the naturalness of flower with gentle heat instead of burning.

“Interestingly, while flower has grown with folks spending more time at home, we’ve seen a huge demand for our PAX 2 and PAX 3 loose-leaf cannabis vaporizers, underscoring that while consumers love the experience and ritual of flower, they increasingly prefer vaping to combustion,” said PAX’s O’Brien.

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