It’s hard to escape the facts about smoking. The health risks associated with cigarettes are well documented, and the large, graphic warnings on every pack are obvious. But when it comes to e-cigarettes, making a healthy decision can be more difficult.
Some celebrate the arrival of these “smokeless” nicotine tools as a safe alternative to cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products. The devices don’t emit the same cancer-causing tar and toxins that burning tobacco leaves produce.
But that’s not the whole story. Many e-cigarettes are loaded with addictive nicotine and even those without nicotine may contain toxic chemicals.
So is it safe to vape? We talked to Jason Robinson, Ph.D., associate professor in Behavioral Science, about the dangers of e-cigarette aerosol.
What is vaping?
E-cigarettes are nicotine delivery devices that have a battery, a heating element and a container for liquid. When the liquid is heated, users inhale the aerosol. The liquids are usually flavored and contain nicotine, so users experience a taste sensation as well as a hit of the same addictive stimulant found in cigarettes.
Vaping or vaporizing is the word used to describe inhaling the aerosol produced by e-cigarettes or similar devices like vaporizers or vapor pens. One brand, Juul, has become so popular that a new verb, Juuling, is widely used.
The risks of vaping
Researchers do know that e-cigarette aerosol contains toxic chemicals like those found in glue and paint. What’s less clear is if the amounts are high enough to cause diseases like cancer.
“The biggest problem is that we don’t know exactly what goes into all the flavorings, and there are thousands of them,” says Robinson. Experts say it could take 20 years to know the long-term health effects of vaporizing.
But there are some clear dangers to e-cigarettes, particularly when it comes to nicotine.
Nicotine is addictive. In fact, it’s one of the most addictive substances available. An addiction to nicotine can lead e-cigarette users, especially kids, to escalate to regular cigarettes.
“The fear is that these young people who would never have tried cigarettes are now getting dependent on nicotine at the most impressionable time,” Robinson says.
Nicotine is harmful. This is particularly true for young, developing brains. Nicotine use can stunt an adolescent’s ability to learn and affect their behavior. It lowers their ability to resist addiction, leading to more nicotine use. Nicotine also worsens conditions like depression and anxiety.
If you have asthma, e-cigarette aerosol can irritate your throat and lungs.
If you’re a smoker, vaping could support your habit, not break it. Instead of transitioning from cigarettes to e-cigarettes, some smokers end up using both.
“There’s no evidence that people can switch and stay switched, some people go on to dual use,” Robinson says. “They may cut back on cigarettes but they use e-cigarettes to get nicotine in areas where smoking is banned.”
This increases their nicotine addiction instead of lessening it, he says.
Nicotine patches, nicotine gum and other smoking cessation products are designed to help smokers wean off nicotine. Unlike e-cigarettes, they are proven to work.
The liquids and devices can be dangerous. E-cigarettes have been known to explode and the fluid is poisonous if it comes into contact with eyes or skin, or if you accidentally or deliberately drink it.
Robinson says the reasons for avoiding Juuls and e-cigarettes are compelling.
“If you’re not already dependent on nicotine, why take the risk of becoming addicted and damaging your health?” he says. “If you are dependent on nicotine, you are much better off using safe cessation tools that are proven to be effective to curb your cravings and get off tobacco products.”