Vaping and Electronic Cigarettes: Debunking the Myths and Exploring the Risks

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Vaping  ̶  the act of inhaling and exhaling an aerosol (vapor) produced by an e-cigarette or similar device  ̶  has become increasingly popular in recent years. According to a market research study conducted by Euromonitor, the number of people vaping has increased from about seven million in 2011 to 35 million in 2016, and is projected to reach nearly 55 million by 2021.

Among youth, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that e-cigarettes are now more popular than conventional cigarettes. Results from a 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey indicated that 1.7 million high school students and 500,000 middle school students reported using e-cigarettes in the 30 days prior to the study.

Indeed, e-cigarette use among teens has been characterized as a full-blown epidemic by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is now considering pulling flavored e-cigarettes from the U.S. market over concerns about the health risks of vaping in adolescents. Because e-cigarettes contain nicotine derived from tobacco, the FDA heavily regulates these products, and in-store and online sales of e-cigarettes are currently restricted to those 18 years of age and older.

The inhaled aerosol is delivered via electronic cigarettes, which are sometimes referred to as e-cigs, vapes, Juuls, vape pens, e-hookahs, or electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS). E-cigarettes basically consist of four components: a cartridge that holds a liquid solution containing nicotine, flavor additives, and other chemicals; an atomizer that serves as a heating element; a battery; and a mouthpiece. In many of these devices, puffing on it activates the heating element, which converts the liquid to an aerosol, which is then inhaled by the vaper.

As e-cigarettes are a relatively new phenomenon, their long-term safety and impact on the public is still unknown, and misperceptions abound. The following information, which reflects current research, details the most common myths regarding vaping.

MYTH: E-cigarettes are safe, and thus preferable to traditional cigarettes. It is often assumed that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional tobacco products because they expose users to fewer harmful chemicals than conventional cigarettes. While they do contain fewer toxic elements, e-cigarettes are still not safe.

Not all vaping devices contain nicotine; however, the pods in vaping devices tend to have a higher concentration of nicotine than traditional cigarettes. E-cigarettes may also contain or release potentially toxic substances, such as metals like lead, nickel, and zinc, and chemicals like propylene glycol and glycerol, which can form cancer-causing compounds when heated.

It’s also important to note that you can still be exposed to the chemicals in e-cigarettes by simply being near one, similar to how secondhand smoke from traditional cigarettes can also be harmful to your health.

MYTH: Makers of e-cigarettes do not market them to children. With flavors like mint, bubble gum, cotton candy, and mango, it’s hard to make the case that manufacturers of these devices are not targeting children and young adults before they can legally use the products. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 7 of 10 teens have been exposed to e-cigarette ads at retail outlets, on the internet, and in print media.

MYTH: E-cigarettes are an effective smoking cessation tool. The FDA hasn’t found any e-cigarette to be a safe and effective tool for individuals who wish to quit smoking. Some studies even suggest that those who adopt vaping as a means of quitting end up vaping and smoking traditional cigarettes concurrently. Given the serious risks of conventional smoking, however, additional research is certainly warranted.

MYTH: E-cigarettes are not a gateway to conventional cigarette smoking or other addictive substances. In fact, according to the director of clinical research for the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease, e-cigarette use is closely associated with other risky behaviors. In a 2016 report from the Surgeon General, it was noted that because nicotine affects the development of the brain’s reward system, continued vaping by teens may not only lead to nicotine addiction, but may increase the pleasure derived from drugs like cocaine. Nicotine can also impact the portions of the brain that control attention and learning, as well as mood and impulse control.

MYTH: Most vapers know what’s in an e-cigarette. There is still considerable confusion about what is in an e-cigarette. Some think the liquid that is heated in an e-cigarette is just water. One study reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 66 percent of teens believed that flavoring was the only ingredient in e-cigarettes; 13 percent thought they contained nicotine; nearly six percent thought they contained marijuana; and almost 14 percent admitted they didn’t know what the ingredients were.

MYTH: The vapor (aerosol) emitted by E-cigarettes is harmless. A small study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health found that vaping negatively affected indoor air quality by increasing the concentration of certain elements linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease, including nicotine, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and aluminum. Because of the size of the study, however, the effects of secondhand e-cigarette vapor deserve further investigation.

Even though additional research on the safety of e-cigarettes is warranted, the potential risks of vaping, particularly for teens, are serious enough to give one pause. Our recommendation? If you don’t currently vape or smoke tobacco, don’t start. If you do smoke or vape, there are many smoking cessation resources available to help you quit, including no-cost programs and services offered by CDPHP.

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