How a Tainted Supply Chain Spelled Disaster for the e-Cig Industry

America’s love affair with e-cigarettes evaporated quickly as millions of users were recently confronted with unnerving news—their vapes could actually contain toxic chemicals powerful enough to be deadly.

With 12 confirmed deaths and more than 800 people sick with a mysterious lung illness, tainted THC-infused vape products appear to be the culprit. Unchecked systemic risk combined with a complex supply chain has jolted the e-cig business.

The CDC issued words of caution on September 27, “Anyone who uses an e-cigarette or vaping product should not buy these products off the street.” The sentiment is clear—consumers need to avoid e-cigs from potentially shadowy manufacturers and distributors fed by an unregulated supply chain.

Duty to the Consumer

E-cig manufacturers have a responsibility to pinpoint precisely what in their products is harmful, just as distributers must be confident they are only carrying reputable items that are sourced through a responsible supply chain. Many vaping products have been found to contain illegal synthetic marijuana, even when consumers believed they were buying THC-free products such as CBD pods.

In an industry as young and unregulated as e-cigs, it’s not surprising an unknown health consequence was lurking on the horizon. Consumers had no idea what ingredients or manufacturers to be wary of because no one yet knew there was a concrete hazard.

The vape supply chain is too complex for any common e-cig user to discern. That’s why e-cig pod producers must take the first step by investigating their supply chain under a microscope and ensure each producer is analyzing every ingredient they sell as well. Once they know what each ingredient is and where it originated, producers must ensure the components meet international regulations and that suppliers abroad are adhering to the standards of every country where their e-cigarettes are sold.

E-cigarettes contain disposable pods, which hold the liquid cocktail of chemicals. How do you isolate which ingredient in the pod is to blame and determine who introduced it? Through rigorous testing.

Even once third parties are unmasked for supplying dangerous goods, fourth parties, the suppliers to the third parties, must be evaluated. It quickly creates a time-consuming, complex family tree of product investigation.

Many Meteors Crash

Many cast the supply chain as the villain responsible for the recent deaths and illness. Manufacturers may have had naïve blind faith that their suppliers were playing fair and dropped proper scrutiny in the name of quickly pushing new products to market.

While it’s not uncommon for a manufacturer of any product to take the odd time- or money-saving shortcut during production, they must thoroughly weigh any possible trade-offs when doing so. This applies doubly for products ingested or inhaled that can have catastrophic health consequences if impure.

As e-cigarettes’ popularity rose meteorically, manufacturers raced to the burgeoning market. It appears corners were cut and supply chain oversight laxed. Unscrupulous or unwitting manufacturers either assumed every step of the supply chain was safe or didn’t check that the proper guardrails were in place.

Perhaps manufacturers didn’t conduct third-party risk management oversight or failed to uniformly impose their restrictions and regulations on suppliers’ products.

Shouldn’t manufacturers have been paying attention all along to the purity of their suppliers’ products? Yes, but let’s not forget just how unregulated the e-cig industry is. Not even Juul, the household name in e-cigarettes, has ever undergone FDA regulatory review.

When there are no clear guidelines for vaping ingredients, it’s near impossible to determine if products are meeting quality standards. Ethical manufacturers must be proactive and take smart precautions in unregulated environments.

Caveat Emptor, Indeed

Where does this leave the e-cig user? We can’t blame consumers who were never advised of the harmful effects of vaping because even the CDC was in the dark until recently. However, just as with any purchase, the consumer should do their research to determine which products are of a higher quality level and steer clear of black-market purchases.

Players in the supply chain, as well as the ultimate manufacturer, need to set their own high standards for quality, especially when national guidelines are non-existent or murky. The consequence of pushing a harmful product is disastrous not only for consumers’ health, but also for the reputation of everyone in the supply chain. No company wants to see its name at the center of a scandal. It’s not just bad for business, it’s literally ruining lives.

While we wait to see how the e-cigarette market responds in full to the current health crisis, one thing is certain—to win back consumers, vape manufacturers have their work cut out to prove products are safe and can meet the expectations of the public’s newfound scrutiny.