Over the past few months, the general public has turned on vaping. Vaping, the practice of inhaling nicotine via an electronic nicotine delivery system (ENDS), or e-cigarette, became popular as an alternative to tobacco cigarettes within the past several years. Without the harmful effects of tobacco and peripheral ingredients, many people believed that vaping was safe—or at least much safer than smoking tobacco cigarettes.
But now, it seems the evidence that vaping is dangerous is accumulating. There are several class-action lawsuits pending, and multiple cities and states have outright banned e-cigarettes and related products. Is vaping really as dangerous as the media makes it seem?
The Effects of Nicotine
First, let’s not forget the fact that the delivery system of e-cigarettes is still designed to deploy nicotine, one of the central ingredients of tobacco cigarettes. In fact, in many cases, nicotine levels of e-cigarettes are higher than their tobacco counterparts. Nicotine is responsible for a short-term “high” feeling, but it’s also associated with increased cancer risk, due to its role in stimulating nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAchRs).
Nicotine has a variety of other negative health effects, such as impaired acetylcholine mediated vasodilatation, increased indices of arterial stiffness, and higher heart rate and blood pressure. If you have pre-existing heart conditions, or are at risk of heart disease, these should be extremely troubling. And as if that weren’t enough, we need to consider the fact that nicotine is highly addictive. People develop physical addiction to nicotine quickly, and the effects can last for months to years, even if you quit entirely.
When you inhale “electronically” delivered vapor, you aren’t inhaling smoke; that’s a good thing, but the vapor can still have pro-inflammatory effects on your lungs. E-cigarette liquid (ECL) is generally not considered cytotoxic, but it becomes cytotoxic when vaporized. Inhaling this vapor can lead to problems with your alveolar macrophage function, and can stimulate an inflammatory state in the lungs. Lipioid pneumonia has been shown to be linked to vaping, as has bronchiectasis.
More research needs to be done, but early indicators seem to clearly suggest that vaping is bad for your overall lung health. Some researchers have hypothesized that long-term use could significantly increase risks of lung cancer, but because vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, there isn’t enough data to back this conclusion up.
One of the troubling components of the vaping health discussion is the fact that we don’t fully understand how all the ingredients in ECLs work. There are few regulations dictating which ingredients can be included in vaping essentials, and different brands use a litany of different constituents. Some types of ECLs have found to have upwards of six different pyrazine additives; pyrazine is a chemical compound that complicates and enhances nicotine addiction, increasing the appeal of the product and making it harder to quit. Pyrazines are also considered toxic to the reproductive tract.
Other additives, such as aldehydes (including formaldehyde), trace metals like nickel and chromium, artificial fruit flavorings, and various carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) have been found. Of course, many of these are commonly found in food and drink products as well.
As a Smoking Cessation Tool
Some have suggested that while e-cigarettes may not be harm-free or safe, they still have many advantages over smoking tobacco cigarettes, and may be more useful as a smoking cessation tool than they are harmful as a standalone product. This is an important argument to remember, but keep in mind we don’t have long-term data on vaping use, so it’s hard to say for sure that vaping is strictly better than smoking tobacco.
The Role of the Media
Many people have suggested that the media is overhyping the risks of vaping for the purpose of generating clicks and viewership. There is certainly some credence to that accusation; while new studies are somewhat damning, they’re also limited in scope. News outlets claiming that vaping is deadly are misleading at best, stimulating public outcry that has led to the banning of e-cigarette products in stores that still freely sell tobacco cigarettes—which are definitively proven to be highly dangerous. That said, news media aren’t simply making up these negative effects; there is truth in what they’re reporting.
Is vaping going to kill you? The truth is more nuanced than most people would have you believe, but there are definitely more harmful effects of vaping than we originally realized. The ingredients of ECLs and the process of inhaling vapor are both problematic for your lung and heart health, and could increase your risk of cancer. But there aren’t any long-term studies on the health effects of this practice, and we therefore can’t compare it apples-to-apples against smoking tobacco. The facts aren’t entirely in.