Is vaping truly a safe habit, and does it pose a higher risk for our youth? Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of heart and lung disease in the United States. Smoking traditional cigarettes has been estimated to reduce the average chronic user’s lifespan by approximately 10 years, killing about 500 thousand people yearly. Fortunately, cigarette use has been steadily declining over decades. Use of e-cigarettes (readily available in the US since 2006), or “vaping”, has become a popular alternative to those addicted to cigarettes and nicotine, presumably due to its lower overall risk profile.
Recent studies have suggested that the majority (51%) of the nation’s estimated 10.8 million e-cigarette users were under 35 years old, and that 44% of users who were between 18-29 actually never smoked cigarettes regularly prior to vaping. And unfortunately, use in the young population appears to be growing rapidly on a yearly basis, tripling to about 263 thousand people between 2011 and 2013, with a significantly higher number of users now.
What is an e-cigarette? It is simply nicotine and chemicals with flavoring that is sold as a vaporizable liquid, which is heated and inhaled by users. While these products may at first seem safer to use than highly addictive traditional cigarettes, they pose an elevated risk to our young population. First, they obviously contain nicotine, which is highly addictive, and which causes elevations in heart rate and blood pressure, and increased risk of developing Type II diabetes. However, nicotine appears to have particularly profound effects on younger brains, whose development is not mature until around age 25. Nicotine is especially dangerous for the developing brain, adversely affecting brain areas that are related to attention, learning, mood, and impulse control. These changes may lead to a predisposition to more dangerous addictive drug use in the future. In fact, young people who “vape” may also be significantly more likely to smoke traditional cigarettes in the future, studies have suggested.
Furthermore, in addition to dangerous nicotine, the e-cigarettes contain flavorings, which contain chemicals such Propylene Glycol and Glycerol. When exposed to the heat of the vaping systems, these chemicals break down to form the potent carcinogen formaldehyde. Some say that the risk of developing cancers from chronic exposure to these chemicals may in fact exceed that of traditional cigarettes. They also often contain a chemical called Diacetyl. When inhaled, diacetyl can cause “bronchiolitis obliterans” – more commonly referred to as “popcorn lung” – a scarring of the tiny air sacs in the lungs resulting in the thickening and narrowing of the airways leading to coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, and eventual chronic lung disease.
Bottom Line? “Vaping” is steadily on the rise among our young population, and while initially viewed as a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes, it is in fact often the only form of nicotine delivery ever used in this group of people. They are unsafe due to effects of nicotine on the developing brain, and on the cardiovascular system. They also contain lung-damaging and cancer producing chemicals, the long-term effects of which have not yet begun to be fully appreciated. Think your son or daughter is at risk? It would be wise to have a frank discussion with them. For additional suggestions and information, go to https://e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov.