Is Vaping Dangerous? Here’s What Science Says So Far

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Many people seem to consider vaping a safer alternative to smoking—but is it?

Quitting smoking is tough. It’s so tough that nearly seven out of ten smokers say they want to quit but haven’t been able to. Electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes offer an intriguing possible path to going smoke-free. These battery-powered gadgets heat a liquid—usually nicotine, which is extracted from tobacco—into an aerosol or vapor. Users can inhale the vapor without the need for tar, carbon monoxide, or some of the other harmful chemicals found in traditional tobacco-based cigarettes.

Vaping deaths have been in the news

But a rash of recent deaths and lung injuries associated with vaping has raised public concern over the safety of e-cigarettes. As of October 1, 2019, the Center for Disease Control has reported 1,080 known cases of lung injuries and 18 deaths linked to vaping in the United States. Of those patients, 80 percent were under the age of 35, 37 percent were under the age of 20, and 70 percent were male. 

As of October 1, 2019, the Center for Disease Control has reported 1,080 known cases of lung injuries and 18 deaths linked to vaping in the United States.

As a reaction to growing concern over vaping, an increasing number of US states are banning the use and sale of e-cigarettes. Michigan became the first with a ban that goes into effect this week. The governor of New York has proposed a ban against all flavored e-cigarettes other than menthol. But that ban has been, at least temporarily, blocked by a judge. The US President and his administration are considering a federal ban. India has already banned the sale of all vaping products, as have Brazil, Singapore, and Uruguay. 

Is vaping really that dangerous? Is vaping better or worse for you than smoking? What exactly is causing the deaths and injuries linked to vaping?  

Is vaping less harmful than smoking?

Vaping has only risen to popularity over the last decade. That means there are not yet any long-term studies on the associated long-term health effects of vaping for, say, 30 to 40 years. Smoking, on the other hand, is known to adversely affect just about every organ in your body, especially your heart and lungs. The medical community has long established that smoking puts you at higher risk for cancer. Traditional tobacco-based cigarettes contain somewhere on the order of 7,000 chemicals, many of which are known to be toxic. 

When it comes to e-cigarettes, we don’t yet know whether long-term use affects the heart or lungs, or whether vaping may cause cancer in the same way smoking does.

When it comes to e-cigarettes, we don’t yet know whether long-term use affects the heart or lungs, or whether vaping may cause cancer in the same way smoking does. We also aren’t sure yet what chemicals vaping exposes us to, including the entirety of the chemicals that might make up the vapor. We know that comparatively, the exposure to toxins is far lower with e-cigarettes than it is with traditional cigarettes, but being comparatively safer still doesn’t make something safe.

For example, we know that the liquids in e-cigarettes usually contain propylene glycol and glycerin. Those two chemicals on their own are irritants. But that also degrade into formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, known carcinogens that are capable of causing cancer. 

And nicotine itself, inhaled both from traditional tobacco cigarettes and when vaping with liquid nicotine, is still bad for us. It’s highly addictive, leads to respiratory problems, raises our blood pressure, and puts us at higher risk of a heart attack. Nicotine is also harmful to brain development in young people. So, while e-cigarettes may come with fewer toxic chemicals, they also allow for heavier hits of nicotine via their extra strength concentrations (those over 18 mg/mL) or adjustable voltage levels. 

Another issue with the health and safety of vaping is that the market is still so new that users may not be aware how little regulation there is over the products. As the FDA struggles to keep up with the over 500 brands selling almost 8,000 flavors, users might not know exactly what is in their e-cigarettes or whether that product has been modified before they purchased it. 

Is vaping addictive?

A large part of the concern surrounding vaping is that it’s not just being used as a way for adult smokers to quit using regular tobacco products. It is also incredibly popular among teenagers. According to the US surgeon general, in 2015 e-cigarette use by high school students went up 900 percent.  Forty percent of those young users had never smoked regular tobacco. E-cigarettes tend to be cheaper, are viewed as healthier than regular cigarettes, and come in fun-sounding flavors like strawberry watermelon, cotton candy, and blueberry cheesecake. 

Growing evidence suggests that 70-90% of those who vape still smoke traditional cigarettes.

And e-cigarettes may not be the effective method for quitting smoking that we originally thought they would be. Growing evidence suggests that 70-90% of those who vape still smoke traditional cigarettes. And they end up smoking traditional cigarettes even longer. Studies also show that teenagers who use e-cigarettes are more likely to use other nicotine products, like traditional tobacco cigarettes. 

What do we know about the vaping-related deaths and injuries?

Symptoms of the reported lung injuries include coughing, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, fever, abdominal pain, and diarrhea with no sign of a lung infection. However the specific chemical causing the injuries is still unknown.

At least so far, this doesn’t seem to be the case of a bad batch of product.

According to the CDC, no single product has been linked to all of the reported lung injury cases. At least so far, this doesn’t seem to be the case of a bad batch of product. The deaths and illnesses do seem to be mostly linked to vaping products containing liquid THC rather than those solely containing liquid nicotine. THC is is tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

As many state bans focus on flavored vaping products (other than menthol), where there are more unknowns as far as chemical content, critics of those bans point to the link between the injuries and THC. 

Should you quit vaping?

Here's the bottom line on vaping based on what we know so far.

  • The CDC officially recommends refraining from using e-cigarettes and vaping until we know more
  • If you’re committed to vaping, only buy from reputable sources rather than "off the street" or from friends or family
  • Don't modify or add substances to your vaping liquid
  • When in doubt, of course, seek advice from a medical professional

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Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can join the science conversation on Facebook or Twitter. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com. Keep up with new episodes! Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can even get cool science answers and news delivered straight to your inbox.