By now, you’ve probably seen people puffing on all sorts of odd-looking devices, walked through clouds of vapor on the street, and maybe even tried it yourself. There’s no doubt about it: Vaping has become a thing.
Between 2011 and 2015, vaping increased 900 percent among teens, according to a report by the US surgeon general. But after that huge spike, the number of teens using e-cigarettes dropped from 3 million in 2015 to 2.2 million in 2016. Why the drop? Vaping products are under stricter regulations now, and students may be getting wise to the risks.
E-cigarettes, vaporizers, and ENDS
There’s lots of lingo associated with e-cigarettes and vaping, and trying to follow it can get a little confusing.
- Any device that lets you inhale an aerosol of chemicals (usually including nicotine) is considered an e-cigarette, according to the FDA.
- Some e-cigarettes look like regular cigarettes. Others, called vaporizers, don’t. There are also e-hookahs, e-cigars, and e-pens. All of these are known as electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS).
- Vaporizers and e-cigarettes have a tank that holds liquid chemicals. There’s a heating element—usually a battery—that turns the liquid into an aerosol that is then inhaled.
- The liquid is called e-liquid or e-juice. The e-liquid in e-cigarettes and vaporizers often (though not always) contains nicotine (in varying amounts), flavors, and other chemicals.
Legally, you must be 18 years or older in most states to purchase any tobacco products, including e-cigs. Some states, including California and Hawaii (and Oregon, soon) have changed the legal purchasing age to 21.
What do experts say about vaping?
Vaping is widely thought to be safer than smoking, but that doesn’t mean it’s risk-free, says Dr. Hayden McRobbie, a professor and researcher in the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary University of London. Although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found a number of carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) in vaping products, these products appear to have lower levels of carcinogens than traditional tobacco products, according to a 2017 study in Annals of Internal Medicine. However, many e-cig products contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and has been shown to harm the developing brain of teens and young adults, according to the surgeon general.
E-cigarettes have been available in the US for about a decade, but not enough studies have been done to know for sure what the long-term risks might be. There are other variables at play, too.
“There are many models of e-cigarettes and vaporizers, including homemade products,” says Dr. Jean-Francois Etter, a professor of public health at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva in Switzerland and an expert in tobacco dependence. In fact, there are more than 460 different e-cigs on the market today. They’re so varied—from the number of puffs to the types of liquids to the depth of inhalation—that it’s difficult to assess their risk, Dr. Etter says.
We don’t know yet how e-cigs can affect our health in the long run, but we do know some interesting facts about them.
5 lesser-known facts about vaping and e-cigs
1. They’ve got some funky chemicals in them.
The FDA started regulating e-cigarettes in 2016, but the agency has not yet evaluated all the chemicals in these products to determine how safe they are. That means, if you vape, you don’t actually know what it is you’re smoking. Many vaping products contain nicotine, which we know is addictive and harmful. Other ingredients often found in vaping products include propylene glycol, a chemical that helps make smoke, and glycerin, a byproduct created when soap is made. Interestingly enough, glycerin can be found in materials ranging from toothpaste to brake fluid—you probably don’t want to be inhaling either of those.
2. Vaporizer batteries can explode.
For real. While these accidents appear to be rare (only about 25 such incidents were reported in the media in a five-year span, according to the US Fire Administration), they can obviously be dangerous and probably pretty terrifying. If you use battery-powered vaping products, here’s how to reduce the risk of a battery explosion:
- No charger swapping. Only use the charger your vape came with.
- Daytime charging only. Don’t charge your vape at night while you’re sleeping.
- Drop your vape into your reusable water bottle? Replace the batteries anytime they get wet.
- Don’t let the batteries come into contact with anything metal.
- Look for e-cigarettes with safety features, such as an automatic shutoff feature when the battery is fully charged.
3. Vaping may increase the likelihood of using traditional tobacco products later on
Early research suggests that using e-cigs may increase the chances of young people moving on to cigarettes and other traditional tobacco products later on, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. An analysis of more than 17,000 14- to 30-year-olds found that those who had ever tried vaping were 3.6 times more likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes than those who had never tried it, while those who had vaped in the past 30 days were more than four times more likely than non-vapers to turn to cigarettes (JAMA Pediatrics, 2017). As we know from decades of research, using traditional tobacco products can lead to a host of not-so-fun health issues, such as cancer, heart disease, erectile dysfunction, and emphysema.
4. Dripping can boost your exposure to toxic chemicals
Some people “drip,” a process of directly inhaling heated e-cig liquid at a higher temperature in order to produce a more concentrated vapor. Preliminary research suggests that doing this may increase the user’s exposure to toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde (a known carcinogen used in glues and adhesives), acetaldehyde (a chemical found in cigarettes and in some foods), and acetone (the active ingredient in nail polish remover) (Pediatrics, 2017). A tip for vapers: Avoid dripping.
5. Big tobacco is now playing the vaping game
The popularity of vaping hasn’t gone unnoticed by big tobacco companies. Tobacco conglomerates started buying up popular e-cigarette companies back in 2012, and they’ve also started making their own e-cig products, according to a 2016 Newsweek special edition. Philip Morris recently filed an application to market a kind of cigarette that heats, rather than burns, tobacco, and hopes to advertise it as “less harmful than traditional cigarettes,” according to Reuters.
Look out for anything tobacco companies tout as safe: In the 1920s–1950s, tobacco companies used ads featuring doctors, babies, and even Santa Claus himself to encourage smoking. The tobacco industry is also known for manipulating data and funding research that supports their best interests (read: making money), according to a 2017 editorial published in Public Health Ethics.
“This is concerning because big tobacco relies on addiction to ensure its customers are repeat buyers, so that makes me think that there are harmful things in vapes,” says Brigid, a student in Normal, Illinois. “This only reinforces my decision to stay away [from vaping].”
The risk of e-cigarettes: TBD
The dangers of traditional tobacco products are many and known; the dangers of e-cigarettes are suspected. That leaves plenty of unknowns for students mulling whether to vape or not.
“I believe they definitely cause more harm to one’s health than people believe. Most people tell me that their vapes are practically harmless, but I believe otherwise.”
—Christopher, Kutztown, Pennsylvania
“[They] may be beneficial to those who currently smoke, but [vaping] often gives the impression of being a ‘healthier’ option, potentially prompting non-smokers to try it.”
—David, Villanova, Pennsylvania
Research published in BMC Medicine in 2015 found that e-cigarettes appear to be less harmful than traditional cigarettes. The researchers also noted that smokers who switched to vaping saw improvements in their respiratory health. “Better than,” though, isn’t the same as “safe,” and it will likely be decades before the risks of e-cigarettes are fully understood.
Vaping for those trying to quit traditional tobacco
For people looking to cut down their cigarette habit, vaping may be a useful tool—though the results of recent studies are mixed. A study including more than 2,000 smokers found that those who also used e-cigarettes were more likely to cut their cigarette use in half than were those who only smoked traditional cigarettes (Addiction, 2017). However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a combination of counseling and nicotine replacement medication (such as the nicotine patch) as the most effective method for quitting smoking.
Want to ditch smoking for good? Here are some resources:
- Call 1-800-784-8669 for free help
- Sign up for texts for extra encouragement: Text QUIT to 47848
- Connect with others who are trying to quit
Anonymous student, Victoria, British Columbia
“This quit-smoking app is honestly so fun, encouraging, and well designed that I wish I could use it to curb every bad habit! Clearly made with care, quitSTART has playful badges and awards for accomplishments, nonjudgmental help for ‘slips,’ and a time-waster’s dream-stream of activities—including crave-distracting games! Overall, this cray-supportive app turns your phone into a 24/7 pocket-sized quit-buddy #bff. (Because our phones clearly aren’t our new best friends anyway…right?)”
This app helps you own the real triggers for your cravings by encouraging you to tag locations, times, or activities that challenge you—so that next time you can get notifications, tips, inspiration, and help sent straight to you.
While it might not rack up the unexpected hours of Candy Crush or Temple Run, this app does have way more encouragement and play-power than you’d expect. For example, it has a fun flip book of inspirational quotes and other motivators, which you can swipe to save into a personalized “Quit Kit.”
The supportive, multi-layered approach—where there’s always new encouragement and a positive distracting activity—is the best part of this app. The attitude that it’s given me is the biggest gift; it forgives mistakes and acknowledges your efforts. It constantly reinforces that attempting an intimidating goal is an achievement itself, that the “journey begins with a single step.” It’s a brilliant attitude for life.
Jean-Francois Etter, PhD, professor of public health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Geneva, Switzerland.
Hayden McRobbie, MB, ChB, PhD, Tobacco Dependence Research Unit, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary University of London, United Kingdom.
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