Vaping: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
With flavors like black pepper, crab legs and “stoned smurf,” “vaping” of electronic cigarettes has attracted a following of curious and adventurous youths. These devices and flavors might have initially seemed harmless, but the numbers show that vaping among teenagers has increased at an alarming rate.
In fact, in 2018, 1 in 10 eighth-graders reported having vaped nicotine in the previous year. Similarly, the use of vaping devices by high-school seniors increased from 27.8% in 2017 to 37.3% in 2018.
There’s a lot we don’t know when it comes to vaping, but we do know this: The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there have been at least 1,080 lung injury cases associated with vaping and e-cigarettes. And the ages of those patients are significant: 21% are 18-20, while another 16% are under 18.
The CDC hasn’t identified the exact cause of these injuries. They appear to be associated with THC oil, but the specific chemicals responsible for the injuries are undetermined.
What is readily apparent is that people who use electronic cigarettes may be at risk.
“Vaping is very acceptable in a way that traditional cigarettes simply aren’t,” says Jacob Plattenberger, an associate at TorHoerman Law and lead attorney in a lawsuit against a leading e-cigarette manufacturer. “Because there aren’t really any regulations, young adults can vape nicotine at all hours of the day, wherever they are. It’s a dangerous power.”
It’s time to cut through the confusion to clarify the potential benefits and risks of vaping.
Potential Benefits for Lifetime Smokers
Although little is definitively known about e-cigarettes, they’re probably less dangerous than traditional combustible cigarettes. “Is it likely that e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes? Possibly — there’s no combustion with e-cigarettes,” says Jessica Barrington-Trimis, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.
The process of combustion, Barrington-Trimis says, is when the carcinogens that lead to cancer are released. Because there is no combustion involved with e-cigarettes, they could be a safer alternative to traditional smoking and possibly effective in helping wean lifetime smokers off of combustible cigarettes. But at this point we simply don’t know.
“Right now we don't have enough information to determine the total scope of the adverse health effects of e-cigarettes,” Barrington-Trimis says.
Probable Danger for New Users
When considering vaping in relation to traditional smoking, there are certainly some potential benefits. All things considered, however, there is evidence that younger generations who wouldn’t otherwise have been at risk for smoking are now addicted to nicotine.
“Since we don’t know the long-term health effects of vaping, we can’t be certain how this trend will affect health,” Barrington-Trimis says. “However, most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which we know has an impact on the developing brain and is extraordinarily addictive.” The nicotine salt formations found in pods are even worse, as they deliver a significantly higher concentration of nicotine. In addition to the CDC-reported lung injuries, there is grave potential for addiction and psychological damage.
Flavored pods are particularly dangerous because they appeal to nonsmokers, causing addiction in adolescents who were otherwise at low or no risk for smoking habits. In fact, a 2013-14 study cites appealing flavors as a key motivator for 81% of young adult e-cigarette users.
New Rules Are in the Works
E-cigarettes aren’t highly regulated at the moment, although the FDA is monitoring the situation. E-cigarette companies are being taken to task for their obvious advertising skew toward teens and young adults. Plattenberger says the use of social media and hashtags indicates a clear targeting of a young adult demographic.
“When e-cigarette companies were first getting started, they advertised on Instagram, leveraging influencers and hashtags,” Plattenberger says. “That’s not how you advertise if your target demographic is someone in their 50s or 60s trying to wean off of combustible cigarettes.”
The only concrete regulation of e-cigarettes is that, like any tobacco product, they cannot be sold to minors. Statistics show, however, that minors are gaining access and freely using these products despite the law. Furthermore, many of these products are poorly sourced and manufactured, increasing the danger they can cause.
“It’s become a controversial issue,” Plattenberger says. “State and federal governments are looking to put regulations in place, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
The bottom line: E-cigarettes might be useful as a means for existing smokers to wean off of traditional cigarettes, but they have contributed to addicting a whole new generation.