In the last few years, the practice of using electronic cigarettes, often called “vaping,” has seen a boom in popularity. That rise is especially apparent among young people, according to several sources, and some worry it may lead to a generation of teenagers becoming addicted to nicotine who eventually switch to regular cigarettes to get a stronger “buzz.”
There are hundreds of different brands of e-cigarettes on the market, and hundreds more varieties of the flavored juices designed to be used with vapes. A good deal of them contain nicotine, and vaping is marketed as a safer way for cigarette smokers to get their nicotine fix than burned tobacco cigarettes. The idea is that once smokers get used to the lower concentration of nicotine in vape juice, they can taper off until they’re eventually just puffing on flavored liquid, say proponents of vaping as a way to quit.
In this article, we’ll examine what exactly vaping is, the health risks of vaping, and look at whether some of the claims made by marketers of vaping devices are true.
What Is Vaping?
First invented in 1963 and later patented in 2003 by Chinese inventor Hon Lik, electronic cigarettes have steadily risen in popularity since their inception. Vaping devices vary in appearance, but all have the same basic components:
- A replaceable cartridge or “tank” filled with a flavored liquid which contains a certain concentration of nicotine
- A vaporizing chamber in which the liquid is heated until it becomes a vapor
- A circuit board where sensors detect when a user inhales
When someone inhales, some of the liquid is vaporized, and the user inhales that vapor. Proponents of vaping argue that even though vape juice contains nicotine, it is still much safer than burned tobacco cigarettes and contains far fewer chemical compounds. The vapor from these devices can either be scentless or take on the flavor of the juice someone is using.
The Risks of Vaping
While there are some people who have used vaping to quit cigarettes, medical professionals still council caution when considering the practice. They advise someone who wants to quit smoking to go with the gum, the patch, counseling or some combination of tried-and-true resources, using vaping only as a last resort.
Another problem with vaping is that, compared to cigarettes, very minimal research has been done around the harmful effects of inhaling the heated vapor in e-cigarettes. Doctors agree that they do possess less harmful chemicals than regular burned tobacco products but warn that we still don’t know enough about the harmful chemicals which are still there, so the side effects of vaping are unclear.
The ingredients in vape juice have generally been marked as safe for consumption by the FDA, but, as a PBS article on the subject has pointed out, the stomach and the lungs are two very different places and will react differently. Propylene glycol, glycerin and the flavoring agents added to vape juice can change form to more concerning chemicals like formaldehyde. Heavy metals from the heating coils in vaping devices can also make their way into the vapor. Diacetyl, a buttery flavoring agent used in some vape juices, is known to cause a serious respiratory illness dubbed “popcorn lung” and has been labeled a hazard after causing serious health problems among factory workers exposed to it in 2000.
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These issues led the FDA to crack down hard on vaping, issuing orders to makers of e-cigarettes and vape juices to clear their ingredients with the agency by 2018 back in 2016 to reduce the harmful effects of vaping. That deadline has since been extended to 2022.
Studies have also shown the connection between vaping and helping people to get off cigarettes to be inconclusive, though it has worked for some people. In fact, some believe e-cigarettes make it more likely that young people will end up smoking cigarettes. This is likely because the FDA doesn’t currently regulate the sale of vaping products, there are no laws in place against selling to minors, and it’s easier for teenagers to get a hold of vape products that have nicotine in them. Those against vaping say this both exposes teens to the health risks of nicotine and makes it more likely that they’ll switch to tobacco cigarettes when they may not have before.
In a statement on the dangers of vaping to teens issued in September 2018, the FDA called vaping among teenagers an “epidemic,” saying:
“The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we’re seeing in youth, and the resulting path to addiction, must end. It’s simply not tolerable. I’ll be clear. The FDA won’t tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine as a tradeoff for enabling adults to have unfettered access to these same products.”
The agency placed particular focus on the brand Juul, the most popular brand of vaping device, issuing 56 warning letters and six monetary penalties to the vape manufacturer’s retail stores.
What the FDA is primarily concerned with is nicotine. An addictive chemical harmful on its own, nicotine has been proven to cause heart problems and is thought to have a negative effect on the developing brains of those under 25. If teenagers and young adults start consuming nicotine, even if it isn’t in a cigarette, it could still be unhealthy and negatively impact their development.
Since vapes and vaping liquids aren’t currently subject to FDA regulation, the amount of harmful chemicals, heavy metals and addictive nicotine present in them can vary widely from one device or one mixture to the next. One Juul pod, for example, can have as much nicotine in it as an entire pack of cigarettes. Add that to the varied amount people use them and the difficulty in quantifying use when looking at drags of vapor and not cigarettes smoked, and you have a potentially dangerous environment.
Getting Involved in Public Health
The risks and positives associated with vaping are still being studied by professionals across multiple industries. By joining the public health sector, you can become part of that discussion and help make a difference in the world. St. Ambrose University’s online MPH program focuses on the skills you’ll need to identify and analyze public health issues, develop evidence-based solutions, and apply and adapt those solutions via practice.
Our curriculum is grounded in core public health principles, so you can explore your specific passion, whether it is rural health care, community health education or environmental health. Plus, because our program is fully online, you can study on a flexible schedule and balance coursework with your life.