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How dangerous is vaping, really?

How those fruity clouds might be affecting your health

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You’re walking down the Ave and suddenly catch a whiff of strawberry. You turn your head and sure enough, somebody’s vaping and you’ve just walked through their cloud. It smells all right — at least not as potent as tobacco smoke ⁠— so it can’t be that bad for you, right?

The number of college students who vape has been exponentially increasing in recent years. Electronic cigarette company Juul Labs, Inc. is expected to make $3.4 billion in sales this year — almost triple its revenue from last year.

Unfortunately, relatively little is known about vaping’s health implications because the pace of research hasn’t been able to keep up with vaping’s skyrocketing popularity. This being said, there’s still plenty of information currently available to help you make more informed choices as an e-cigarette consumer (or non-consumer).

It’s been well established that vaping does indeed expose users to fewer chemicals than tobacco smoke, meaning it’s most likely safer for your health than traditional smoking. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in their 2018 report “Public Health Consequences of E-Cigarettes,” there is “conclusive” evidence that e-cigarettes expose users to fewer toxicants and carcinogens than combustible tobacco products.

A study from the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Tobacco and Research Center also found that people who use e-cigarettes are more likely to quit traditional smoking, meaning that e-cigarettes can be helpful for cigarette smokers who are trying to quit. However, many e-cigarettes are now being picked up by people who have never touched cigarettes before.

Most of the liquid used in an e-cigarette, including all JUUL pods, contains nicotine. Nicotine is well known for being an extremely addictive substance, and many people use nicotine for its dual relaxing and stimulating effect on the body and mind. It increases focus, like coffee, but with different actions in the brain.

A common misconception is that nicotine is harmless other than being addictive. In reality, nicotine causes long-term damage as well.  Research published by the US Department of Health and Human Services indicates that it harms brain development, making it risky for people who have yet to enter their mid-20s. It alters the prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsible for cognitive function and one of the last brain areas to mature. 

The consequence is that even though nicotine might help you to focus in the short term, it can actually impair that ability in the long term. Nicotine exposure to the developing brain additionally increases the risk of addiction to other substances.

It’s also important to note that nicotine being “just” addictive still isn’t a fun experience: Nicotine addiction can cause withdrawals that are physically and mentally unpleasant. Symptoms include headaches, fatigue, irritability, and even depression.

Though many vape products are advertised as being nicotine-free, that may not even be true. A study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal indicated that 40% of vape users aged 12 to 21 who claim to use “nicotine-free” vapes are actually mistaken; urine samples indicate that they’re still unknowingly ingesting it. 

Experts believe this is due to deceptive marketing and product-labeling by vape companies. A 2015 study found that 99% of e-cigarette products sold at convenience stores and supermarkets contain nicotine. In other words, if you’re trying to avoid nicotine, be careful. If you’re unsure if what you’re buying contains it, the answer is almost always yes.

But what about the liquid that really is nicotine-free? Despite the common misconception that nicotine-free liquid is “just flavorings and water,” it turns out that it might be more dangerous than that.

The liquid usually contains propylene glycol, a chemical that releases formaldehyde gas — a human carcinogen — when heated. A 2018 study by the Desert Research Institute and the University of Nevada, Reno, indicated that significant amounts of aldehydes, including formaldehyde, are absorbed by the respiratory tract during a typical vaping session. Although more research needs to be done, these results mean that vaping might increase your risk of getting cancer.

So how risky is vaping? 

The bottom line is that while vaping might be fun to try, its effects are more complicated than they may seem. If there’s one thing many health organizations know for sure about vaping, it’s that there’s still a lot they don’t know and need to do more studies on.

Before trying vaping, you should be careful to find the best information you can about how what you’re using might affect your health. The health risks of traditional smoking weren’t common knowledge in the United States until the 1950s and by then, many cigarette users were already addicted. Although the knowledge currently available about e-cigarettes is limited, the increasing body of evidence makes it reasonable to assume that history may be repeating itself.

Regardless of your takeaways, secondhand vapor has been proven to increase the likelihood of asthma attacks in people with asthma. If you’re going to vape, at least don’t do it indoors, and be considerate of people nearby.

Reach writer Natalie Rand at Twitter: @n_rand_

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