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Often touted as safer than traditional cigarettes, electronic vapor products are proving to be just as addictive for some, and posing a variety of health concerns.

Everyone knows that smoking in its traditional form — cigarettes, cigars, pipes — is bad for one’s health, yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates nearly 40 million Americans smoke. More than 480,000 adult Americans die from smoking-related illnesses each year, according to the CDC. Lately, e-cigarettes have become part of the equation. They don’t contain tobacco, but many vaping products do feature nicotine, the addictive substance in tobacco. However, is vaping helpful in quitting smoking, or is it also harmful and addictive?

ELECTRIFYING FACTS

The use of electronic vapor products commonly known as vapes, vape pens, e-hookahs, and e-cigarettes, has become a common way to quit tobacco products. However, a 2017 report by the Pima County Health Department indicates that among traditional cigarette smokers who attempted to quit, about 50 percent had tried e-cigarettes and 20.3 percent of those were now routinely smoking electronic vapor products. It would be easy to conclude from those results that these smokers had traded one vice for another.

Though smoking tobacco through combustion has been around since about 5000 B.C., vaping brings a technological twist to the act of consuming nicotine, a stimulant that naturally occurs in tobacco and some other plants.

According to the CDC, the process of vaping works by the vape or vape pen heating up a liquid (often flavored) that becomes an aerosol. The aerosol can be harmful to the user’s lungs, as well as the lungs of those around them. Some vaping liquids have been found to contain diacetyl, an ingredient that imparts a buttery flavor. It already has been banned in food products such as microwave popcorn because it’s been found to cause permanent lung damage.

Although not all vaping liquids contain nicotine, many do. A large amount of nicotine exposure at a young age can affect brain functions such as focus and memory, as well as increasing the risk for addiction later in life. Additionally, some electronic vapor devices can be used for marijuana and a variety of other drugs.

STARTING IN THE MIDDLE

The Pima County Health Department has worked hard to make teens more aware of the risks posed by vaping. Rebecca O’Brien, Program Manager for the Pima County Health Department, comments, “Vaping among Pima County youth has been on the rise in recent years. Our 2018 data indicates that almost half [48 percent] of teens in Pima County have tried a vape or e-cigarette device at least once in their life. We continue to educate teens and their parents about the health dangers posed by electronic nicotine delivery devices in hopes of reversing the vaping trend among youth.”

E-cigarettes are marketed to teens and young adults, suggesting to potential consumers that the e-cigarette industry is trendy, fun, inclusive and safe. And many of the young people who are targeted by these companies are already experienced with tobacco. The 2017 Pima County Health Department report, “The Status of Youth and Tobacco,” highlights that in Pima County the average age for young adults to begin using tobacco products is 13.1. The report also indicates, “39 percent of Pima County high school seniors have tried a cigarette at least once in their lifetime.” The exposure to traditional forms of cigarettes and tobacco, coupled with the publicity for vaping and its multiple flavor options, peer pressure and new trends are all key factors in young adults’ decisions on vaping. “We know that e-cigarettes come in a number of flavors, many of which are fruity and appeal to youth. The marketing used to advertise these products, in addition to the fruity flavors, make them particularly attractive to young people. Using nicotine products early in life also can lead to long-term addiction in the future,” observes O’Brien.

According to the CDC, in 2020, 19.6 percent of high school students in the United States used e-cigarettes. Middle School students were at 4.7 percent. Though these numbers are still relatively high, they represent a decrease in the numbers of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes according to recent CDC and FDA data.

IN IT TO QUIT IT

One local insider [who chooses to be anonymous for this story] relates their firsthand experience with vaping. They started in college as e-cigarettes did not smell as strongly as traditional cigarettes. They saw the product marketed everywhere and thought, “why not try it?” Vaping, because of the nicotine consumed, helped with focus, went well with alcohol to make parties more enjoyable, and became its own reward system.

This vaper has since attempted to quit the habit six times and typically, quitting works for a few weeks. As part of the withdrawal, brain fog and fatigue set in. Paradoxically, not vaping has caused anxiety for them, but anxiety and muscle tension are among the main side effects this person has felt while vaping.

They were more aware of the effects vaping could have when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. They were able to quit the habit for a few months by their own will power, yet as time moved on, and they didn’t get the virus, the habit came back. “It is easy to quit … it is hard to stay quit,” they remark.

THE EVIDENCE SAYS ….

The University of California San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education has multiple resources on vaping, smoking, tobacco use and much more. Topics tange from information on recent e-cigarette laws to the potential risks of vaping in relation to COVID-19. One of their most recent studies (released in December 2020), led by UCSF’s Richard Wang, M.D., MAS, found that contrary to what advocates argue, e-cigarettes used unsupervised do not help smokers quit, and may make it more difficult to give up the habit. Senior author Stanton A. Glantz, Ph.D., professor of medicine said, in contrast to the way most smokers use e-cigarettes, “Smokers who use e-cigarettes do quit smoking more when it’s part of a medically supervised cessation program.” [Emphasis added]. He noted, however, “No e-cigarette has been approved by the FDA as such a medicine, probably because no e-cigarette company has applied for FDA permission to do so.”

HELP IS ON (THE) LINE

In March 2019, the Pima County Health Department started a campaign named “The REAL DEAL on Vaping,” with information accessible on their website (webcms.pima.gov/government/health_department). The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids maintains a website (tobaccofreekids.org) with an abundance of national and global data about the problems of smoking and vaping, along with useful information explaining the effects of smoking and e-cigarette use.

“There’s still a lot of unknowns regarding the long-term health outcomes of vaping,”concludes O’Brien. “Although we have decades of evidence demonstrating the harmful effects of smoking combustible cigarettes, there’s still more to be learned about what happens to someone after years of vaping.”