Only a few short decades ago, smoking a cigarette was seen as common and about as detrimental as having a drink on the weekends, or treating yourself to a steak when you had a good week. Tobacco was simply another rite of passage for adults, something that most men and a good portion of women did. It wasn’t until the mid-60s that the Surgeon General’s office made a public statement about the health risks of smoking, and it was 2004 before a truly comprehensive report was issued from the Surgeon General’s office regarding the effect that tobacco and nicotine can have on the body.
With so many adults already addicted to smoking, and generations that still considered smoking a simple habit for stress relief or weight loss, convincing Americans to stop smoking was going to take a lot of work. In the early and mid-2000s, patches were considered the best way to quit, until those were revealed to be equally unhealthy. This gave way to the rise of the e-cigarette and vaping habits that many people have today.
What are E-Cigarettes and Vaping?
E-cigarettes and vaping are actually two separate things that share a few key features that differentiate them from cigarettes. First, both create vapor, rather than toxin-filled smoke, thus eliminating the common outcry about second-hand and third-hand smoke that tobacco users impose on those around them. Additionally, both devices use batteries and can be recharged to use again. Some e-cigarettes are disposable, but these are not as popular as the more economic rechargeable options. Finally, both use a liquid, known as e-liquid or “juice”, that is converted into vapor when the device is used.
But that is where the similarity ends. E-cigarettes heat the liquid to burning in order to create the vapor that is exhaled by the smoker. These devices often resemble metal cigarettes and are roughly the same size and shape as a cigarette. These are most often used by smokers who are trying to trick their brains while they quit cigarettes, and are sold at gas stations and convenience stores along with cigarettes. While users can buy flavored tobacco attachments to customize their smoking experience with e-cigarettes, it is less common to be able to control the nicotine level.
Vaping, on the other hand, is done with a device known by many names: a vaporizer, a vape pen, or a vape e-cig are all common terms for a vaporizer. These devices are larger and are made up of multiple pieces that include the battery, an atomizer, a tank for the e-liquid, and a tip. They are often the size and shape of a large fountain pen, but modified vape pens come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. These are customizable smoking tools, with the ability to choose your nicotine level (even down to zero nicotine), mix and match flavors, and create your own juice like a mad scientist. Additionally, the batteries and atomizers on vaporizers can be customized to create a slower, low burn experience as desired. Vape pens are also designed to last longer. In a way, you could consider the differences between e-cigarettes and vaporizers similar to the difference between cigarettes and a tobacco pipe.
Because these are two different things; we’ll look at how each can affect your health to determine the danger.
Is Vaping Dangerous?
Just last year, Portland State University released a study showing evidence that vaping, specifically, can cause users to inhale several forms of formaldehyde when they vape. This was a peer-reviewed study that found that the heating of the e-liquid at a high voltage caused a release of toxins that resulted in smokers increasing their risk of cancer by as much as 15%.
However, this study did not take into consideration that the largest portion of vape users do not use a high-voltage because it causes the e-liquid to have a burned flavor. In fact, other studies have shown that it’s nearly impossible for even long-time smokers to actually inhale e-liquid when it is burned at the voltage that is necessary to produce the formaldehyde effects that the Portland State University study measured.
But this isn’t the only study that has produced potentially dangerous information about vaping. Earlier this year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science heard a report that vaping causes the lung tissue of users to be more susceptible to getting infections of any kinds, even more so than long-time smokers. A study at the University of North Carolina to test this theory also showed that vaping may be related to hyperactivity, lower sperm counts, increased plaque buildup, and an overall negative effect on the cardiovascular health of those who vape.
However, all of these studies are new, and while their results seem to suggest that vaping is not healthy, even the professionals behind the tests admit that the findings are inconclusive. At the common sense level, of course, vaping is not as healthy as not smoking at all. Vaping involves the inhalation of chemicals, usually including nicotine, in order to get the same stress-relief or other “benefits” of smoking cigarettes.
But when compared to smoking cigarettes, it’s hard to say if vaporizers are as bad, or worse, for your health. The more studies that are done, the more evidence is uncovered that vaping is likely to be just as problematic as smoking is for your overall health.
Are E-Cigarettes Dangerous?
Unfortunately, definitive opinions on e-cigarettes are just as difficult to come by. Remember, an e-cigarette isn’t as easy to customize as a vaporizer, meaning that there is no way to reduce your nicotine levels by using a juice with lower concentration. Most e-cigarettes come in a range of 6 milligrams to 18 milligrams per cigarette; in contrast, a standard cigarette contains 10 to 15 milligrams of nicotine per cigarette. Additionally, e-cigarettes do not have the ability to control the voltage on the battery, and they work by burning the liquid rather than heating a chamber using an atomizer. This means that it’s far more likely that the liquid in an e-cigarette will be heated to unsafe levels, causing the release of dangerous chemicals.
The chemicals in an e-cigarette range from lead, tin, and other metals, to chemical components of antifreeze, and artificial flavoring chemicals, which can be toxic. However, they don’t use any tobacco, so the carbon monoxide and tar are not present like they are in traditional cigarettes. Until recently, e-cigarettes have not been a governed product, meaning that literally anything could be used and sold as a safe e-liquid. Beginning this past August 2016, e-liquid will be governed by the FDA, so some of these unknown and harmful chemicals may soon be leaving the e-cigarette components for good.
No specific studies have been done on the properties of e-cigarettes, but just like vaporizers, common sense tells us that inhaling any kind of chemical into your lungs is less healthy than not doing so at all. However, without the effects of tobacco, e-cigarettes may still be slightly better for you than smoking cigarettes. Many health professionals agree that stepping down from cigarettes to e-cigarettes is similar to a heroin junkie switching to marijuana: probably still not great for your health, but far less detrimental than the original choice.
Do Vape Pens and E-Cigarettes Eliminate Second-Hand Smoke?
One of the big arguments for using vape pens and e-cigarettes long after the urge to smoke has gone is the fact that they don’t produce second-hand smoke. This has long been one of the ways that smokers have finally been convinced to quit. Second-hand smoke has been shown to have long-term detrimental effects to family, friends, and even pets. And recent research has shown that third-hand smoke (that is, smoke exhaled by a smoker, that has attached to a bystander’s clothing or hair, and is later inhaled by someone they come into contact with) can be just as dangerous. But with all this talk of chemicals in e-cigarettes and vape pens, do they really produce only a clean cloud of water vapor?
The American Lung Association has produced two studies that show that the vapor exhaled by e-cigarette and vape users does, in fact, contain chemical emissions from the ingredients used in the e-liquid. There is very little known about these emissions, or if they are harmful to the environment or the people around us. Some studies show that formaldehyde and other carcinogens and toxins were all present in these emissions. While nothing may be known about the exact effects of inhaling this second-hand vapor, there is also nothing that proves that inhaling second-hand vapor is totally safe, either.
There are currently nine states, as well as many hundreds of private communities across America, that have lumped the use of vaporizers and e-cigarettes in with smoking cigarettes, meaning that vaping is not allowed in any space that cigarettes are not allowed.
But Can They Help You Quit Smoking?
Yes, vaping and using e-cigarettes can help you quit smoking. If you are using these devices specifically to end your reliance on nicotine, then there is no question that you are making a healthy decision. Just like the patches, gums, or pills that are available to help your body deal with lower levels of nicotine, e-cigarettes and vaping aren’t as good as going cold turkey; but they can make it much easier for your body and mind to adjust as you step down in nicotine levels. They also make it easy to “trick” the brain because they are used in the same way that a cigarette is. Long-term smokers will find that vaping or using an e-cigarette “feels” the same, and so the body won’t begin signaling that it needs a smoke.
Overwhelming research shows that quitting smoking can add years back to a person’s life, and greatly reduce their risk of cancer, heart disease, and infections. While choosing to vape or smoke e-cigarettes, in the long run, may not be the healthiest decision, as part of a quitting process, they are great tools that should be utilized in order to gain the overall health benefits of not smoking at all.
There are other health concerns with vaping and smoking e-cigarettes. One of the most vocal concerns is the fact that vaping, in particular, has become a novelty hobby, similar to the way tasting and brewing unique beer can be. “Juice bars” where vape users can try out new flavors of e-liquid are popular, and the community of vape users draws in many young people thanks to its focus on customized, modified vaporizers. This DIY attitude appeals to many people and gives vaping a feeling of being more of a hobby, rather than a risky health decision.
Because of all of this, there is a concern that people who have never smoked at all may begin vaping; and that the vaping will lead to them being addicted to nicotine, just like smoking cigarettes can cause. To be absolutely clear: yes, nicotine is an addictive substance. No matter what form you inhale or ingest it, it can cause addiction. If someone who doesn’t smoke wishes to begin vaping, whether due to the community or the popularity of “juice bars”, and chooses not to stick to the zero nicotine juices, they are at just as much risk of addiction as people who begin smoking cigarettes.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, the truth is that we just don’t know yet if vaping and smoking e-cigarettes is as dangerous, or possibly more dangerous, than smoking traditional cigarettes. Studies on the chemicals inside e-liquid are inconclusive, and many are likely to be moot after the FDA begins regulating the industry in August 2016.
However, any time you choose to inhale chemicals into your lungs, it can and likely will have a negative effect on your health. It’s always best to choose to not smoke anything at all. The only proven time in which e-cigarettes or vaporizers are known to be beneficial is when they are being used to help a long-time smoker finally kick the habit for good.