Vaping: A Hidden Killer?

What is vaping?

Vaping is a new trend that is sweeping the globe and quickly replacing traditional cigarette smoking. Originally advertised as a safer alternative to smoking (1), vaping is a method of inhaling nicotine by using an aerosol, instead of combustion to produce smoke vapors. The idea is that by avoiding the smoke that is created from cigarettes, less harmful substances reach your lungs, and therefore the risks and side effects of smoking are reduced whilst still allowing people to satisfy their nicotine cravings.

Different vapes and e-cigarettes laid next to one another.

Photo by  Antonin FELS  on  Unsplash

Vaping is carried out using a small electronic device called an e-cigarette. This can also sometimes be called an e-cig, e-hookah, vape sticks or vape pens. E-cigarettes were created to try and reduce the number of deaths and illnesses that occur from cigarette smoking. There are lots of different styles and brands of e-cigarettes, but they all work on the same principles. They come in a wide variety of different flavors as well as different strengths, and are frequently advertised as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, or as an aid for people wishing to stop smoking.

So, is vaping better than smoking normal cigarettes?

A female hand holding a lit cigarette.

Photo by Irina Iriser on Unsplash

It is important to understand that whilst cigarette smoking has been around for many many years, vaping in contrast is fairly new. This means that while we have many years of research and data on cigarette smoking, we don’t have as much data or research available for long-term vaping and e-cigarette use, and we therefore do not have the same level of data as we do for regular cigarette smoking, meaning it’s harder to draw conclusions for how safe it is to use e-cigarettes.

Despite this, initial reports show that because of the reduced level of toxins in vape ‘smoke’, they are up to 95% less harmful than cigarettes (2) but would not recommend that non-smokers start vaping because there is still a risk of harm. In fact, recently there have been lots of reports from the United States of people who have died or developed a serious lung disease as a result of e-cigarettes. As of December 10th 2019, the American government has acknowledged over 2,400 cases of vaping related lung injuries, and 52 deaths in the US alone (3) .Their findings show that a substance called THC, short for Tetrahydrocannabinol, which is found naturally in marijuana, may be to blame for some of these cases, but that there is not enough research available yet to definitely prove or disprove the link.

In many of these above cases, shortness of breath and chest pain have signalled the start of lung damage, which gets progressively worse and ultimately needs medical treatment and can even lead to death if not treated or severe. Such lung damage can also increase your risk of getting an infection such as pneumonia and in the United Kingdom, there have been a handful of cases in which there is an association between pneumonia and the use of e-cigarettes (5).

Are e-cigarette devices safe?

E-cigarettes have been hitting the headlines for another reason too. There have been reports in the media of e-cigarette devices exploding and catching fire, causing burns and other injuries to users. This is due to the type of battery they use, which is made from lithium. Although these events are rare, cases of overheating batteries, broken chargers and cheap imitation products causing injuries have been recorded (6). It is recommended that you only purchase e-cigarettes and charging equipment from official suppliers and that you regularly check for signs of leakage or damage to the battery to avoid accidents like these.

So what does this all mean?

The difficulty in fully assessing the dangers of vaping and e-cigarettes lies in the fact that they are not particularly well-regulated in many countries and are a relatively new product. 

A silver e-cigarette.

Photo by Sven Kucinic on Unsplash

This means that it is hard to establish what exactly goes into vape fluid and how it is manufactured and that there is no long-term research into side-effects to consult. It is also difficult to attribute these reported deaths and illnesses solely to vaping as a high proportion of people who vape were previous smokers and so are already more likely to suffer from lung problems. However, all of the evidence points towards there still being some harm from e-cigarettes and these claims should be taken seriously.

Of course, there is one obvious solution if you are concerned about your respiratory health: stop all forms of smoking! This is much easier said than done, but it is important to be aware of the problems associated with vaping before opting to use e-cigarettes during the stopping smoking process. Try and stay updated by looking up the latest research and news stories on vaping and e-cigarettes and if you are looking to quit, investigate other available forms of nicotine replacement.

Having said this, it remains the case that vaping has been proven to be less harmful than cigarette smoking. Therefore, switching from cigarette smoking to e-cigarette vaping as a step towards quitting entirely may be a good option if quitting outright straight away seems impossible. In the United Kingdom, this is an increasingly popular choice and over half of people who vape are ex-smokers (2), which may suggest that e-cigarettes are helpful in order to quit.

Where does that leave us now?

So, what is the future for e-cigarettes? After the recent spate of deaths and illnesses, e-cigarettes are being more thoroughly scrutinized and more regulations have been introduced in places like the United States. Norway and Australia have already banned any nicotine containing vape fluid and in Hong Kong, there are plans to introduce a prison sentence for those caught making, selling or even advertising e-cigarettes! (4) The most recent ban to be put into action was in India, which has led to protests on the streets against authorities’ claims that vaping makes people more likely to take up cigarette smoking. This just shows how common vaping is and how strongly people feel about it, meaning that future bans and regulations are likely to be faced with public backlash. As further research is conducted, it is likely that a lot of countries will make or change laws relating to the manufacturing and sales of e-cigarettes. Only time will tell if these laws will make a difference and help to keep people safe or not.

The truth is that the full extent of the dangers posed by e-cigarettes are not yet known and so they should be treated with caution until all of the facts are available. It is important to be well informed about both the potential risks and benefits of e-cigarettes before you decide if you want to start, stop or continue to use them. Whilst the choice is an individual one, it is worth remembering that the safest thing you can do is stop smoking completely which whilst difficult, is definitely possible!

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  1. Nhs.uk. (2020). E-cigarettes | Smokefree. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/smokefree/help-and-advice/e-cigarettes [Accessed 30 Jan. 2020].
  2. Bhf.org.uk. (2016). E-cigarettes are much less harmful than smoking according to report. [online] Available at: https://www.bhf.org.uk/what-we-do/news-from-the-bhf/news-archive/2016/april/e-cigarette-report [Accessed 30 Jan. 2020].
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Outbreak of Lung Injury Associated with the Use of E-Cigarette, or Vaping, Products. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/e-cigarettes/severe-lung-disease.html#what-we-know [Accessed 30 Jan. 2020].
  4. Hunt, K. (2019). The US and UK see vaping very differently. Here’s why. [online] CNN. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/09/17/health/vaping-us-uk-e-cigarette-differences-intl/index.html [Accessed 30 Jan. 2020].
  5. Stubley, P. (2020). Vaping ‘linked to 200 health problems in UK including pneumonia’. [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/vaping-uk-pneumonia-lung-disease-deaths-us-mhra-e-cigarette-a9125581.html [Accessed 31 Jan. 2020].
  6. Ives, L. (2018). How likely is your e-cigarette to explode?. [online] BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-44161348 [Accessed 31 Jan. 2020].
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