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Vaping 101: A crash course on how it works

Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press

Nicotine and cannabis vaporizers have been making headlines lately, from the rise in vaping among teenagers to the outbreak of vaping-related illnesses nationwide.

But what actually is a vaporizer?

As federal and state leaders debate changes to vaping regulations and ban the sale of flavored vaping products, you may be wondering: What are the ingredients that people are concerned about? What are my teenagers inhaling when they vape? And how does a vape actually work? So let’s take a step back. Here’s your crash course in vapes.

How does a vaporizer work?

Let’s start easy: A vaporizer is a device that takes refined oil and various liquids and heats it until it turns into a vapor that the consumer inhales.

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The heating element — commonly seen as coils — is “not as hot as actual fire,” said Gene Ray, director of the Fitchburg laboratory for Garden Remedies, a Massachusetts cannabis company with recreational stores in Marlborough and Newton. “It’s pretty much vaporizing the components at their boiling point.”

Vaporizers are made up of batteries, or pens, which are generally reusable, and substance-filled cartridges that tend to be disposable.

Consumers activate vapes either by pressing a button on the vaporizer, or by inhaling on the mouthpiece. That heats the substance and turns it into vapor.

A vape pen and tobacco cartridges.
A vape pen and tobacco cartridges.Joanne Rathe/Globe staff/Globe Staff

Keywords

Additives: Ingredients added to vape substances that control their taste, smell, or thickness.

Battery: The part of the vaporizer that gives it the energy to heat the vape substance.

Cartridge: The part of the vape that is filled with a substance to be vaped. Some cartridges are refillable, but most are disposable.

Flower vaporizers: A differently manufactured device that vapes marijuana flower, the leafy buds most commonly used for smoking, as opposed to cannabis oil. Flower vaporizers are not believed to be connected to any vaping-related illnesses because there are no mysterious ingredients.

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Terpenes: Terpenes are naturally found compounds in plants that can be put into cannabis oil to help thin the product and to give the product more flavor.

Thinners: Ingredients added to vape substances to cut the natural thickness of the product. While some companies say they use terpenes to thin their product, some companies use thinners that are believed to be dangerous to inhale.

Vape pen: Often the name of the entire contraption, including the battery and the cartridge.

Vitamin E acetate: An ingredient added to some vape substances. Federal health officials believe this ingredient is associated with the vaping-related illnesses nationwide. Many licensed dispensaries in Massachusetts have said their vaping products do not contain vitamin E acetate.

Health officials believe Vitamin E Acetate is associated with the vaping-related illnesses nationwide.
Health officials believe Vitamin E Acetate is associated with the vaping-related illnesses nationwide.Hans Pennink/Associated Press/FR58980 AP via AP

So, what is actually in a vaporizer?

This is the million-dollar question of the moment.

Vaporizers tend to be highly unregulated, even in regulated adult-use marijuana industries like the one in Massachusetts.

Although state regulators oversee the cannabis components of vaping oils, they don’t have oversight on additives or on the vaping cartridge hardware. Media reports have suggested that even the hardware could have problems of its own.

In September, Massachusetts cannabis regulators approved a measure that will require all licensed cannabis companies in the state to disclose their ingredients on vape cartridges sold in stores. The five cannabis commissioners voted unanimously on the change.

But weeks later, Governor Charlie Baker enacted a temporary ban on the sale of all vaping products. A state judge challenged a piece of that ban, ruling that the Cannabis Control Commission — not Baker — has the right to oversee the products sold to medical marijuana patients. Nevertheless, the commission decided to keep most of the ban in place for now, with the exception of flower vaporizers for medical marijuana patients, until the commissioners know more.

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Meanwhile, Baker announced just before Thanksgiving that his ban on nicotine vaping products will be lifted Dec. 11, when state public health officials are set to decide on new regulations for the products. The cannabis commission was left in charge of determining the next steps for all cannabis vapes.

At Garden Remedies, Ray said, the company uses nothing but cannabis products in its vape oil. The company extracts cannabis oil directly from the plant. To thin the oil, it uses terpenes, which also contribute to the product’s flavor.

“In most regulated companies like Garden Remedies, we don’t use these thinning agents because we already have these natural thinning agents, which are the terpenes that come from actual plants,” he said.

Some companies, especially illicit market manufactures, use coconut oils, coconut liquid bases, or other unspecified liquids to thin the cannabis oil. By adding excess thinners to the product, Ray said, the cannabis oil can be dispersed among more cartridges and the illicit operators can make more money on a single batch of oil.

“Most illicit markets are using these types of thinning agents to cut their oil just so they can stretch it, pretty much, but not taking into consideration the health issues that may arise,” he said.

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A demonstrator vaped in front of the White House to protest the vaping flavor ban.
A demonstrator vaped in front of the White House to protest the vaping flavor ban.Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images

What’s the latest on the vaping illnesses?

There have been at least 2,291 vaping-related illnesses nationwide, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 48 people have died, including three from Massachusetts, and more deaths are under investigation.

The reports of illnesses have come from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.

Though federal health officials have found some indications that vitamin E acetate is partially to blame for the illnesses, they’ve emphasized that they don’t believe it’s the only problem.

In Massachusetts, officials revealed Thursday that six patients reported using regulated products from state-licensed marijuana companies, the first time state authorities have explicitly linked the illnesses to cannabis vapes purchased at legal stores and dispensaries.


Clarification: Some references to “vaping oils” were changed to “vape substances” in this story to more broadly describe the ingredients in all vaporizers — both cannabis and nicotine. While THC vaporizers commonly contain oil, nicotine vapes are usually based in other non-oil ingredients. Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com.