The emerging threat of fentanyl-laced vapes, and how agencies and programs should address it.

June 26, 2023

In recent years, a dangerous trend has emerged in the realm of substance abuse: the proliferation of fentanyl-laced vapes. This lethal combination of the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl and electronic cigarettes has raised serious concerns among health experts, law enforcement agencies, and the general public.

As we dive into this pressing issue, it is crucial to understand the grave risks associated with fentanyl-laced vapes and the urgent need for education, prevention, and intervention as agencies address this growing crisis.

The Impact of Vaping on the Brain: Understanding the Mechanisms

Vaping involves the inhalation of e-liquids containing nicotine. When an individual uses an e-cigarette, the nicotine present in the e-liquid is absorbed from the lungs into the bloodstream very quickly. Once in the blood, nicotine triggers the release of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, by stimulating the adrenal glands.

From Nicotine to Epinephrine

Epinephrine is a hormone that impacts the central nervous system, resulting in various physiological responses, including increased blood pressure, respiration, and heart rate. These effects typically lead to heightened alertness and increased physical arousal, contributing to the stimulant properties of nicotine.

Dopamine Release

Similar to other addictive substances, nicotine has a profound impact on the brain's reward system. One crucial mechanism through which nicotine exerts its influence is increasing levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain.

Dopamine is vital in regulating the brain's pleasure and reward pathways. When nicotine interacts with the reward circuitry and enhances dopamine release, it intensifies the feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. This pleasurable experience associated with nicotine consumption motivates individuals to continue using nicotine, despite the known health risks and potential harm to their overall well-being.

Increased Risk of Dependence

The activation of the brain's reward system by nicotine establishes a powerful psychological and physiological connection. It creates a cycle of reward-seeking behavior, where individuals feel driven to continue use to experience these effects. This cycle contributes to the addictive nature of nicotine and the challenges individuals face when attempting to quit or reduce their vaping habits.

But vaping devices often deliver nicotine in higher concentrations than traditional tobacco products, increasing the potential for addiction. And the availability of flavored e-liquids further enhances the appeal, especially among young users. As a result, nicotine addiction has become an increasingly concerning issue for teens and adolescents.

The Emergence of Fentanyl-Laced Vapes

As if highly addictive flavored nicotine didn’t already pose a serious threat, the illicit market has recently witnessed a concerning convergence between fentanyl and vaping devices. In an attempt to appeal to unsuspecting users, illegal drug manufacturers have been incorporating fentanyl into vape cartridges, which are then sold as seemingly harmless e-cigarettes. This deadly combination has created a new avenue for fentanyl consumption, catching many users off guard.

The Threat of Fentanyl

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid and central nervous system depressant, is incredibly potent, surpassing morphine by 80 to 100 times and heroin by approximately 50 times.

While fentanyl does have legitimate medical applications for pain management, its illicit production and distribution have become a significant concern as it finds its way into various counterfeit substances, including pills and other illegal drugs.

Even the tiniest quantity of fentanyl, regardless of the method of ingestion (oral consumption, nasal inhalation, or injection), carries an alarming risk of a potentially fatal overdose. Dermal contact can also be dangerous—even fatal in many cases.

The Dangers of Fentanyl-Laced Vapes

Fentanyl-laced vapes pose deadly risks to individuals and communities. The potency of fentanyl makes accidental overdose a significant and genuine concern. Given the lack of regulation in the illicit drug market, users cannot know the strength of the fentanyl in these vape cartridges, leading to unpredictable and potentially fatal consequences.

The potential lethality of fentanyl-laced vapes is cause for concern among health professionals, law enforcement agencies, and the general public.

The nature of vaping itself presents dangers, but inhaling fentanyl through vaping devices allows chemicals to enter the bloodstream more quickly, leading to a rapid onset of effects. This quick absorption can further increase the risk of overdose, making it difficult for individuals to seek medical help in time.

And fentanyl-laced vapes may contain other harmful substances, such as cutting agents or additional drugs, which can compound the health risks associated with their use.

The potential lethality of fentanyl-laced vapes is cause for concern among health professionals, law enforcement agencies, and the general public.

Signs That Vape Contains Fentanyl

Users must recognize the potential risk of undisclosed ingredients when purchasing vaping devices illegally, whether through acquaintances, drug dealers, or online sources. In these cases, the advertised contents may not reflect the actual composition of the vaping liquid.

Even if a particular vape is marketed as cannabis or another substance, illicit vaping devices may contain heroin or fentanyl. So, it's important to know the signs that could indicate fentanyl exposure:

  1. Slow or Difficult Breathing: Fentanyl depresses the respiratory system, leading to breathing difficulties or decreased breathing rate.
  2. Sedation: Fentanyl's potent effects can induce a state of extreme drowsiness or sedation.
  3. Disorientation and Dizziness: Fentanyl's impact on the central nervous system can lead to confusion, disorientation, and dizziness.
  4. Slow Pulse and Low Blood Pressure: Fentanyl's effects on the cardiovascular system can manifest as a slowed pulse rate and reduced blood pressure. Monitor your pulse and be aware of any unexpected drops in blood pressure to help identify potential fentanyl-related issues.
  5. Loss of Consciousness: Severe fentanyl exposure may result in loss of consciousness or even coma. If someone loses consciousness after vaping or displays unresponsiveness, take immediate action.

Responding to a Potential Fentanyl Overdose

If you suspect a fentanyl overdose due to vaping, time is of the essence, and swift action can be life-saving. Follow these steps:

  1. Call 911: Contact emergency services without delay. Inform the operator about the situation and provide as much information as possible to ensure appropriate medical assistance is dispatched promptly.
  2. Administer Narcan (naloxone): If available, Narcan, a medication that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, should be administered. If you are trained in its use, follow the instructions provided. If unsure, emergency services can guide you through the process.

Addressing the Crisis

A multi-faceted approach is required to combat the alarming rise of fentanyl-laced vapes.

Public awareness campaigns to educate individuals about the potential dangers of vaping are the first line of prevention. Law enforcement agencies must also increase efforts to dismantle illegal drug networks responsible for producing and distributing fentanyl-laced vapes.

Addiction treatment centers will also need to better equip themselves to deal with fentanyl-laced vapes by providing accessible treatment options and offering support to people struggling with addiction.

PharmChek® can play a crucial role in addressing the crisis of fentanyl-laced vapes. Our Sweat Patch is designed to detect the presence of drugs in an individual's system, such as fentanyl, opioids, marijuana, and more, through sweat collection and analysis. And our Sweat Patch offers specific advantages over all other drug testing methods.

Early Detection and Intervention

PharmChek® can provide early detection of fentanyl use, including its presence in vape form. This proactive approach enables timely intervention by healthcare professionals and addiction specialists and helps avoid potential fatal outcomes.

Monitoring and Accountability

A sweat patch can act as a monitoring tool for individuals at high risk of fentanyl-laced vape use or those in addiction treatment. It provides ongoing accountability and discourages relapse. And by tracking drug use over an extended period, healthcare providers can adjust treatment plans and interventions accordingly, promoting better outcomes.

Prevention and Education

Incorporating PharmChek® into prevention efforts can serve as a powerful deterrent. By highlighting the availability of this technology and its ability to detect fentanyl in vape form, potential users may think twice before engaging in risky behaviors.

Enhanced Law Enforcement

The Sweat Patch can also aid law enforcement agencies in combatting the distribution and sale of fentanyl-laced vapes. By implementing these patches as part of both juvenile and adult probation and parole programs, individuals under supervision can be regularly monitored for drug use, including the use of fentanyl-laced products. This serves as a deterrent and assists in identifying individuals who may require additional support or intervention.

Safety and Recovery with PharmChek®

Meeting a deadly threat like fentanyl-laced vapes means taking a different approach to prevention and monitoring. Vaping and E-cigarettes have their own health-damaging issues, but the potency of fentanyl changes the dangers from long-term to immediate. With many reports of these opioid-tainted e-cig cartridges connected to marijuana vaping, the role of accountability becomes even more important.

When working towards a solution that provides both accountability and incentive for recovery and sobriety, the PharmChek® Drugs of Abuse Sweat Patch is an innovative tool for law enforcement agencies, recovery programs, and safety-sensitive industries. Our court-supported and scientifically proven sample collection technology provides the support needed to promote accountability and improved SUD and addiction outcomes.