Just a decade ago, all you needed to do to get high on nicotine was to light up a cigarette and let the fumes dangle on your lips. At the time, vaping was almost unheard of. But since first entering the U.S. market about ten years ago, e-cigarettes have ascended at an almost unbelievable rate, especially amongst teenagers.
In October 2018, a survey revealed that about 10.8 million adults use e-cigarettes. In more recent research, it was found that in addition to the adult users, around 3.6 million middle school and high school students now use electronic cigarettes.
While regulations regarding advertising and marketing e-cigarettes are still being negotiated, most of us have been blitzed with ads and commercials for the products as healthy alternatives to traditional smoking even though they have not received Food and Drug Administration approval as smoking cessation devices.
But just how safe is vaping to your health? Is it a better alternative to the old-fashioned cigarette? Is it worse? Or has just the same effect? Because of the novelty of these devices, researchers are still busy trying to find out the long-term effects of this sophisticated technology on our health. However, a few facts are available right now.
The word “Vaping” was coined from “Vapor”. E-cigarettes which come in various forms including vape pens, tanks and the most popular JUUL are battery-powered heating devices which heat up liquid containing nicotin, flavourings and other chemicals into an aerosol, otherwise known as vapor. This vapor is then inhaled directly into the lungs, an act which is now known as Vaping.
Christy Sadreameli, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is not very comfortable with the use of the word “Vaping”. According to her, “People hear that it’s a vapor and they think of water vapor, but water vapor is benign, and we don’t think that the vapor from these products is benign.”
The dangers of smoking traditional cigarettes cannot be overestimated. According to a research, regular cigarette smoking puts you at risk of cancer, respiratory diseases and cardiovascular ailments taking away an entire decade from your life expectancy. Although, there is no current long-term health data on e-cigarettes, they seem to be less deadly than an old pack of Rothmans.
The difference according to Dr. Vaughan W. Rees PhD, director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is in how the tobacco is converted into an end product to be inhaled. “The combustion of tobacco is what makes cigarettes more harmful” he explains. Upon lighting a match and setting fire to the cigarette, “you inhale a mix of thousands of toxic chemicals, including at least 60 known carcinogens deeply into the lungs, which increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems and do damage throughout all the organs.”
In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report which concluded that vaping products contain far lower levels of toxins than combustible cigarettes, making it a healthier option for addicted smokers. Dr. Rees adds that e-cigarettes appear to be less risky because they do not contain the by-products of combustion. “Although they are less risky” he says “they are not free of health risks.”
Are your lungs entirely safe? What about your overall health? The fact that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes does not mean that it’s as simple as licking a stick of lollipop. E-cigarettes are continuously evolving and the more we get to learn about them, the more dangers we unravel. There have been reported cases of lung problems including two deaths, linked to vaping, one in Illinois and another in Oregon. According to a Washington Post story, nearly 354 e-cigarette users have developed severe lung disease in 22 states in the United States.
In a 2019 review, it was found that the aerosol that gets deeply inhaled into your lungs while vaping contains a whole slither of elements in addition to nicotine. These elements include hazardous amounts of ultra-fine particles and heavy metals including nickel, lead, and tin as well as explosive organic compounds such as formaldehyde, benzene and acetaldehyde, which can cause lung diseases.
The flavors from these liquid substances (yes, that favourite pineapple, strawberry or mango flavour) are also very capable of causing damage to an unknown extent, adds Dr. Sadreameli. 39 out of 51 e-cigarette flavourings contain a chemical called diacetyl which has been linked to a serious lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as “popcorn lung”. While diacetyl is considered safe to be eaten, they are not meant to be inhaled into the lungs.
When compared with non-smokers, recent studies from the National Academies Press have shown that vaping almost doubles your risk of a heart attack as well as increases inflammation of the lungs and causes bronchitis. “It raises your blood pressure and spikes your adrenaline, which increases your heart rate and the likelihood of having a heart attack” Says Michael Blaha, M.D., M.P.H., director of clinical research at the John Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. The use of e-cigarettes also increases the risk of stroke and angina.
We have also seen some reported cases of severe burns and facial damage caused by the explosion of e-cigarettes. If those flavoured liquids are swallowed by children, it can cause nicotine poisoning leading to vomiting, nausea, seizures and in extreme cases, death.
Vaping appears to be dangerous to oral health too. It was discovered in a 2018 study that exposure to aerosol from e-cigarettes exposes teeth surfaces to bacteria, increasing the risk of cavities and gum inflammation. The 2018 report from the National Academies Press also found considerable evidence that vaping causes cell dysfunction, oxidative stress and damage to DNA. These cellular changes have been linked to the long-term growth of cancer, although there is presently no evidence to show that vaping causes cancer.
A bigger cause for worry is the fact that vaping is now a widespread trend amongst children and teenagers. In 2015, the U.S. surgeon general reported that e-cigarette use among high school students had increased by 900 percent, and 40 percent of young e-cigarette users had never smoked regular tobacco. “What I find most concerning about the rise of vaping is that people who would’ve never smoked otherwise, especially youth, are taking up the habit,” says Blaha. According to him, e-cigarette users are very likely to suffer the same addiction as users of heroin and cocaine. “Many e-cigarette users get even more nicotine than they would from a tobacco product — you can buy extra-strength cartridges, which have a higher concentration of nicotine, or you can increase the e-cigarette’s voltage to get a greater hit of the substance.” He adds.
So why is Vaping so enticing to youths? According to Blaha, there are three reasons why vaping sounds appealing to young people. First is the belief that vaping is less harmful than smoking. Second is that e-cigarette has a lower per-use cost than old-school cigarettes and lastly, the flavorings in vape cartridges appeal to young users.
Out of concern, Pediatrics have found that kids between the ages of 12 – 17 who use e-cigarettes are twice more likely to move on to smoking the more harmful old-fashioned cigarettes as kids who never vape. Not only can it affect their development at this crucial time in their lives, it can also set them up for greater health risks in the future.
Blaha states that “most people who intended to use e-cigarettes to kick the nicotine habit ended up continuing to smoke both traditional and e-cigarettes.” The healthiest option therefore in trying to kick a smoking habit is not to vape at all.
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