Vaping is marketed as a healthy smoking option, but electronic cigarettes can still get you hooked on nicotine.
By Harshita Avirneni
Nearly 11 million adults and 3 million high schoolers share the same addiction: vaping.
E-cigarettes and vaping have become a widespread phenomenon in the past decade, masquerading as a safe smoking option. Although e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, nicotine and carcinogens still exist, and can cause immense damage to the body.
An e-cigarette is an electronic device that heats a liquid solution of chemicals, often flavored, to produce an aerosol, or vapor. E-cigarettes go by many names, including Juul, vapes, vape pens, e-cigs and electronic nicotine delivery systems, and come in a variety of flavors often appealing to younger smokers, from cotton candy to mango.
Since the use of e-cigarettes is fairly new, a lot of the long-term side effects are unknown. Vaping does have many documented short-term effects, such as insomnia and nosebleeds, and known long-term effects can include high blood pressure, lung inflammation and “popcorn lung,” the nickname for bronchiolitis obliterans.
“Lung cells don’t repair as well after e-cigarette smoke, but it’s basically the same as any kind of smoke that causes inflammation, whether you’re talking about normal tobacco or vaping e-cigarettes,” says Laura Q.M. Chow, a professor at Dell Medical School and the research director for Livestrong Cancer Institutes. “People think it’s better, easier because it’s more convenient and it seems safer because it’s not typical tobacco. But [e-cigarettes are] just a vehicle for nicotine and it still causes lung, bladder and heart [problems].”
Although there has been no proven research that links vaping to cancer, e-cigarettes contain dangerous chemicals. The base of vapor is propylene glycol, an FDA-approved food additive that can cause damage to the body when consumed in high quantities. E-cigs also contain diacetyl, which causes inflammatory lung disease, and probable carcinogens formaldehyde and acrolein.
“[Carcinogens] cause inflammation, cell turnover and they cause cells to change,” Chow says. “Unfortunately, a lot of these chemicals are called carcinogens because they can cause cancer, but some of them are also what we call mutagens, where they can cause mutations in cells that are replicating. And obviously, if there is a lot of inflammation that can occur with the smoking itself, then [with]all these chemicals, there is a lot of cell turnover and there is a higher chance that these cells become abnormal and form cancers over time.”
Vaping also causes disruptions in the normal relationship between the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and its receptors. It carries messages related to respiration heart rate, memory alertness and muscle movement. Since nicotine is “shaped” similarly to acetylcholine, it fits the same receptors and replaces it. This causes the body to reduce the number of receptors and released acetylcholine into the synapse, which ultimately develops the body’s the need for nicotine, leading to addiction.
“If a younger person or teenager starts with e-cigarettes, they are four times more likely to use other tobacco products later in life or as they get older,” says Jessica Cardenas, program manager for the American Cancer Society. “And as we all know, tobacco is the leading cause of [preventable] disease and death in the United States. So, I think from our perspective, that’s a concern, the fact that it does lead to using tobacco products and cigarettes later.”
While vaping is marketed as a tool for smokers to quit cigarettes, David Kolovson, director of communications for the American Cancer Society, worries teenagers who never smoked are now turning to e-cigarettes.
“This isn’t something that kids are going to try once or twice after school and be cool with it,” Kolovson says. “A lot of kids are going to try it and get hooked on it, and that’s really where the problem is. I think it’s really problematic too in just the way e-cigarettes have been marketed to youth… when you have flavors like cherry crush or cotton candy. … Health organizations, generally over the past 40 [to] 50 years, have done a really good job in making cigarettes seem like something scary. But e-cigarettes, on the other hand, are vape pens…which seems much more accessible to kids.”
Recently, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill raising the smoking age in Texas. Consumers will have to be 21 to purchase tobacco products, including cigarettes and e-cigarettes. The bill goes into effect Sept. 1.