To see teenagers discreetly puffing on little electronic devices, better known as e-cigarettes or vapes, is a common sight these days but is it as benign as it is projected to be? When vaping became mainstream a little over a decade ago, it was initially marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes, or a way to help wean yourself off nicotine gradually. But in reality, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Earlier this week the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, USA, confirmed the first death following an outbreak of severe lung disease in those who use e-cigarettes or vaping devices. According to CDC, this reinforces the serious health risks associated with e-cigarette products – as well as how much is still unknown.
“Vaping exposes users to many different substances for which we have little information about related harms – including flavorings, nicotine, cannabinoids, and solvents,” CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield said in a statement.
Given that vaping is relatively new, there is a lot we are still learning about its impact on the body, both in the long- and short-term. Here’s what we know so far:
The first electronic cigarette was patented in 1965 and consisted of a battery-powered element that would heat tobacco flavor without combustion. A similar smokeless non-tobacco product, called the Flavor Cigarette was introduced in 1986, but never took off. The modern e-cigarette as we know it was developed in China in 2003, and made it over to the United States a few years later.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, USA, “e-cigarettes” or “vape pens” describe battery-operated nicotine delivery systems which are activated when a person puffs, vaporizing the liquid in the cartridge. The person then inhales the resulting aerosol or vapor – known as “vaping.” In addition to nicotine, it’s also possible to vape other substances like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical in marijuana that produces the feeling of being high.
In 2008, the World Health Organization came out against vaping, noting that contrary to what some marketers of e-cigarette imply in their advertisements, it is not a legitimate therapy for smokers trying to quit. At that point, the WHO pointed to the dearth of research on the effects of vaping, and called on those selling the products to conduct clinical studies and toxicity analyses.
The following year, the Food and Drug Administration tested two popular brands of e-cigarettes and found that they expose users to harmful chemical ingredients, including diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze, and carcinogens, including nitrosamines. As a result, the FDA issued a warning in July 2009 on the health risks posed by vaping and, like the WHO, called for clinical studies to help determine whether e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use.
An alternative to smoking
The first wave of studies linking smoking to lung cancer were published in the 1940s and 1950s, but it took several decades before the large-scale national public health campaigns communicating the message that “smoking is bad” were really taken seriously. Going hand-in-hand with telling people not to smoke was also informing them that if they did currently smoke, they should quit – and there were plenty of products to help them do it. The FDA approved nicotine gum as a cessation aid in 1984, followed by the transdermal nicotine patch in 1991, but neither of these mimicked the physical sensation of holding and smoking a cigarette. So when e-cigarettes hit the market in the mid-2000s, they were immediately marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking and something that could help people quit.
Vaping was unfortunately put forward as a viable alternative – and solution – to smoking without any clinical trials on its long-term health impact. There is, however, some shorter-term data demonstrating the effects of vaping on our lung health; over 800 different studies conducted since 2018 confirmed that the inhalation of harmful chemicals from e-cigarettes can cause irreversible lung damage and disease. Specifically, that the two primary ingredients found in e-cigarettes – propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin – are toxic, and that vaping produces several dangerous chemicals including acetaldehyde, acrolein and formaldehyde, which can cause lung and cardiovascular disease.
And vaping isn’t exactly a solution to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke either: A 2016 Surgeon General report found that secondhand emissions from vaping contains volatile organic compounds like benzene – which is found in car exhaust – and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin and lead, among other things. The bottom line is that even if vaping isn’t as harmful as smoking traditional cigarettes, it’s still bad for your health.
–With information from Rolling Stone