Vaping is the hottest new vice among teens and young adults, but is it safer than smoking? This is a very difficult question to answer, especially in light of new developments. Since this article was first published, there has been a troubling number of cases of lung disease cropping up around the country. We are going to take a look at how e-cigarettes came about, the latest medical trends, and where we stand today as a new generation become tobacco users.
How Vaping Began
It seemed like a great idea. Create a product which could deliver nicotine to current smokers in a “safer” way to help them quit tobacco cigarettes. E-cigarettes were invented in 2003 in Beijing, China, by inventor, pharmacist and smoker, Hon Lik. He had watched his father die of lung cancer and wanted to help both himself and others avoid a similar fate. In 2007, e-cigarettes hit the US market. They were originally marketed as an independent smoking-cessation alternative, but soon large tobacco holders like Reynolds and Altria (makers of the current big vape hit, JUUL, and also owners of Philip Morris USA) introduced their own products, and threw large dollars at marketing campaigns which never mentioned smoking cessation, but positioned their products as glamorous accessories.
An Alternative to Standing Out in the Cold
It didn’t take long before smokers and non-smokers alike had taken up vaping. It was the answer for smokers who needed to satisfy their nicotine cravings in an ever-increasing non-smoking world, where regular combustible cigarettes were shunned and banned in public spaces everywhere. Rather than having to go outside to smoke, they could pull out an e-cigarette and when challenged in public gathering places, their answer was usually – “Calm down, it’s just water vapor!” But is it really just water vapor?
What’s in Vape Juice?
The nicotine delivered in the aerosol of a vaping device is highly addictive, and the aerosol used to deliver nicotine to a user’s lungs can contain heavy metals such as lead, nickel, and tin. It usually also contains known cancer-causing chemicals, ultra-fine particles, and flavored e-juice may contain a chemical called diacetyl which has been linked to a serious lung disease. While the CDC does make the claim vaping is less harmful than smoking combustible cigarettes, it has found most people who do use them are “dual” users, both vaping and smoking – which pretty much defeats the original purpose.
Is Vaping Safer If You Are Pregnant and Trying to Quit Smoking?
The short answer is NO. Any tobacco use during pregnancy could lead to fetal harm. According to the American Pregnancy Association, “nicotine is an addictive substance that is toxic to reproduction and interferes with fetal brain development. It may also adversely affect fetal lung development and increase the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).” The best course of action if you are pregnant to quit all tobacco use completely. You and your baby will be much healthier for it.
Those Kid-Friendly Flavors
Bubblegum, popcorn, mint, strawberry, and many more flavors which would appeal to teens and pre-teens could be found at just about every vape or convenience store from 2011 until 2018. Maker JUUL has come out and said the flavors were introduced to appeal to smokers, to entice them to quit regular cigarettes and move to vaping exclusively. But studies have shown mostly what those flavors did was entice middle schoolers and high school students to try vaping, and then become addicted to nicotine. It’s not much of a mental stretch to imagine tobacco companies were looking to create a whole new segment of life-long customers in a US market which had become incredibly anti-smoking. JUUL has since stopped selling fruit and candy-flavored pods in retail outlets, restricting those places to selling Menthol, Mint, and Tobacco flavored pods only, but still offer the other flavors on their website, which it claims is heavily vetted to ensure buyers are over 18.
In a survey conducted by the CDC in 2018, they found 3.18 MILLION middle and high schoolers had used a vaping device in the past 30 days. These are not current cigarette smokers, and most had not tried any other tobacco product in the past. Although sales are restricted to those 18 and over, and sale of fruit and candy-flavored e-juice has now been banned by the FDA, the use of these devices is seemingly on the rise. They are small, easy to hide, and do not produce the telltale tobacco smell when used, so kids can hide them and their use easily. It was found many kids were even charging their devices on their school computers by way of a USB charging port (the lithium battery on an e-cigarette needs to be charged periodically to produce the aerosol).
As with any relatively new product, the long-term effects cannot fully be predicted, although we are starting to see some adverse effects recently. Since this article was first published in January of 2019, some states have seen cases of teens, young adults, and most recently those who have been classified as “older adults” being admitted to the hospital with severe lung injuries in what doctors had described as previously healthy individuals. According to a CNN survey of state health departments, there are 120 cases of possible lung disease in fifteen states. The following states had the most reported confirmed or potential cases:
Wisconsin – 15 confirmed, 15 under investigation
Illinois – 10 confirmed, 12 under investigation
California – 19 under investigation
New York – 11 under investigation
Indiana – 6 confirmed, 3 under investigation
New Jersey – 9 identified
The frightening aspect of this development is the fact these lung injuries were initially thought to be caused by infection when first identified, which is treatable with antibiotics; however, all tests for infection came back negative. Some of the patients’ injuries are so severe they have had to spend time in the intensive care unit. After some investigation by doctors, it was discovered all these patients had vaped or “dabbed” (inhaled marijuana products) recently. An investigation is ongoing to determine if there was a common product among these individuals.
Similarly, back in April, the FDA reported 35 young adults were suffering from seizures possibly associated with vaping. Since nicotine toxicity has been known to cause seizures, especially in younger tobacco users, there is at least a clear correlation between vaping and these instances of seizure if not direct causation. Since then, an additional 92 cases have been identified.
It may be that vaping was adopted quickly among young users simply because of the fun flavors and the idea that it was “just water vapor” so there was very little danger involved. The fact chemicals, including nicotine, were present did not seem to pose much of a threat to those who chose to start the habit. Now there is the potential for grievous harm to come to these users of a product touted to help with smoking cessation and as a “healthier” alternative to traditional cigarette use.
While Juul has agreed to discontinue sweet-flavored pods, there is the additional threat of counterfeit e-cigarette pods coming into the country that still contain these flavorings to increase sales to young users. Further study into the specific chemicals contained in these products will hopefully identify the culprits so they can be removed and the producers of them can be held responsible.
These devices have introduced a whole new generation to nicotine, and we know there are chemicals contained in the aerosol which is not healthy for the human body and can lead to complications later in life. As has been shown with cigarettes, there is the chance of lifelong addiction for those who begin smoking in their teens as the brains of teens are still developing well into their early 20’s. It’s why alcohol sale is restricted to those 21 and over, and why the sale of tobacco products like cigarettes and smokeless tobacco is restricted to those 18 and over.
The Bottom Line
Let’s make one thing very clear. Vaping nicotine-based “e-juice” is tobacco use. The most popular vape devices in the US are manufactured and marketed by large tobacco companies. The nicotine in vape juice is derived from nicotine salts in tobacco leaves, mixed with flavorings and chemicals. These salts, when vaped, produce the nicotine punch without the lung irritation experienced by first-time smokers. They are not harmless, and they are not regulated.
The CDC has done extensive studies on vaping and e-cigarettes. Their recommendation is pretty simple – if you have never been a smoker, do NOT start vaping. Tobacco companies have found a way to create a new customer base. Kids who would have never used any tobacco products (smoking and tobacco use saw a steady decline from 2011 to 2017, cutting the number of smokers in middle and high school by more than half) are now addicted to nicotine because of vaping devices. They were sold an image, told it was safe, and basically bamboozled like the ads of old which touted cigarettes as everything from a weight-loss aid, to a pick-me-up, to a way to aid in digestion. It is certainly ironic teens who are fighting for better gun laws, and who don’t want to be controlled by corporations, are now becoming more and more addicted to an unhealthy product designed by big tobacco to hook them for life.