The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced today that they have seized 44 websites advertising the sale of illicit vaping cartridges containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component of the cannabis plant. The action, which is part of Operation Vapor Lock, reflects ongoing work by federal, state and local authorities to investigate the supply chain of vaping products associated with recent lung injuries.
The online networks, some of which were identified based on interviews with patients and families, were advertising THC vaping cartridges in various brand names alongside pictures and statements about THC levels or other information clearly indicating the items for sale would be considered a controlled substance under federal law. To date, none of the products advertised on the 44 websites have been confirmed to be linked to any cases of lung injury. Nonetheless, the FDA and DEA took action to seize these sites, which were advertising THC vaping products for sale over the internet in clear violation of federal law.
The seizure of the websites comes as the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other state and local health partners work to investigate lung injuries and deaths associated with the use of vaping products. FDA, CDC and state health authorities have made progress in identifying substances of concern; however, there are many different substances and product sources that remain under investigation, and there may be more than one cause. The latest national and state patient reports and product sample testing suggest THC-containing vaping products, particularly from informal sources like friends, family, or in-person or online dealers, are linked to most of the cases and play a major role in the incidents.
“We need to fully understand the causes of vaping related lung injuries,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D. “Moreover, it is a federal crime to advertise the sale of illicit THC vaping cartridges online, and by seizing these websites today, we are able to focus on other online and in-person sources of illegal and potentially dangerous vaping products. As more information comes to light in this complex and evolving investigation, we remain committed to taking further appropriate actions with our federal, state and local partners.”
“In the wake of recent injuries and deaths caused by vaping products, these seizures send a message to anyone seeking to capitalize on this dangerous trend,” said Acting DEA Administrator Uttam Dhillon. “DEA will continue to work in lockstep with FDA and other federal, state, and local partners to use all our authorities to pursue anyone that violates our laws and puts Americans in harm’s way.”
The websites that were seized directed people to order illicit THC vaping cartridges and make payments for orders through various financial services. Some of the websites seized were determined to exist solely to fraudulently obtain payments from people without ever intending to mail any product. For all of the other websites seized, investigators were able to complete a purchasing transaction for illicit THC vaping cartridges, but to date have not received any of the product ordered.
In addition to health risks of illicit substances or illegal drugs purchased online, “scam” websites such as these pose other risks to consumers, including credit card fraud, identity theft and exposure to computer viruses. The FDA encourages consumers to report suspected criminal activity to the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations.
Shortly after the emergence of the lung injuries associated with vaping products, the FDA’s law enforcement arm began investigative efforts to identify particular products, constituents or compounds that may be at issue and the related supply chain. The agency’s Office of Criminal Investigations is following every possible lead, which includes traveling throughout the country and attempting to gather any available evidence and conduct interviews. The FDA is not pursuing any enforcement actions associated with the personal use of any vaping products; the agency’s interest is in suppliers.
To date, FDA laboratories have received over 1,200 samples from 31 states and one territory with roughly 1,004 of these samples connected to patients. These samples have been collected directly from consumers, hospitals, and state offices. They have included vaping devices and products containing varying levels of liquid as well as packaging and other documentation. The FDA laboratories are analyzing samples for the presence of a broad range of chemicals, including nicotine, THC and other cannabinoids, along with cutting agents/diluents and other additives, pesticides, opioids, poisons, heavy metals, and toxins. No one substance has been identified in all of the samples tested.