A study recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people who had died from vaping-related illnesses this year had significant lung damage, with one of the authors noting that it was similar to the kind normally seen “when a person is exposed to a spilled drum of toxic chemicals at their workplace.” This assessment sounds horrendous, of course, but doesn’t necessarily describe all aspects of vaping’s health effects, which are still quite murky.
To get a better sense of whether or not vaping—the use of e-cigarettes and other such devices—is a net positive or negative for society relative to smoking, here’s a “cold take” breaking down the four most relevant points to consider. And while vaping is certainly less hazardous to one’s health than smoking, the mass adoption of vaping may prove to be a wash thanks to peripheral factors, like the type and quality of whatever product is being vaped.
1. Is Vaping Healthier Than Smoking?
There is no question that vaping is less harmful to one’s health than smoking cigarettes. The American Cancer Society, for example, says that “research has found that e-cigarette use is likely to be significantly less harmful for adults than smoking regular cigarettes.” This is because there are thousands and thousands of chemicals in tobacco smoke (we found numbers between 5,000 and 7,000), which means that it poses its own risk.
Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say that “e-cigarettes have the potential to benefit adult smokers who are not pregnant if used as a complete substitute for regular cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products.” Which is clearly not an endorsement by the CDC, but still further evidence of the idea that vaping is less harmful to one’s health than smoking.
As of 10/1, a total of 1,080 confirmed & probable cases of lung injury associated w. e-cigarette use/vaping were reported from 48 states & one U.S. territory. 18 deaths were confirmed from 15 states. See latest findings from the ongoing investigation: https://t.co/Pz8b5HoeMv pic.twitter.com/f8L7GwlZfC
— CDC (@CDCgov) October 3, 2019
2. What do Health Authorities say about Vaping?
Since the The American Cancer Society and the CDC say that vaping is safer than smoking, does that mean they, and other major health organizations like them, believe that vaping is unquestionably a move in the right direction? No. Not at all. In fact, The American Cancer Society, the CDC, and many other big-name resources say that in all likelihood, vaping is a significant risk to people’s health.
A report titled “Can vaping damage your lungs? What we do and don’t know” published by the Harvard Medical School, for example, notes that “nearly 200 e-cigarette users have developed severe lung disease in 22 states,” as of September 2019. The Harvard Medical School report also notes that “Some substances found in e-cigarette vapor have been linked to an increased risk of cancer.”
The American Heart Association echoes that sentiment, writing that “Most e-cigs deliver nicotine, which is highly addictive and may cause negative health effects such as harming the developing brains of teens, kids and fetuses in women who vape while pregnant.” The AHA also notes that “some types expose users to even more nicotine than traditional cigarettes,” and that many of the liquids used in vaporizers (often known as e-juice or e-liquid) can poison people when absorbed through the eyes or skin.
On this radio program, HMS’ Sharon Levy discusses vaping-related injuries and deaths and explores the reasons why e-cigarettes have become more addictive and tougher to quit than regular cigarettes (via @WBUR) https://t.co/1AkJzc1qa7
— Harvard Medical School (@harvardmed) October 8, 2019
3. What should and shouldn’t be vaped?
As of right now, it seems that many of the people who are developing illnesses from vaping are doing so because they’re using various cartridges that are either contaminated or straight-up filled with an illegal substance. The same Harvard Medical School report quoted earlier also notes that “experts aren’t sure if vaping actually caused… lung problems, but believe the most likely culprit is a contaminant, not an infectious agent.”
This CDC report—which is separate from the previous one—also notes that “while [its investigation into the health effects of vaping] is ongoing, CDC recommends that persons consider refraining from using e-cigarette or vaping products, particularly those containing THC.” The report adds that even THC products (marijuana) sold in states where it is legal may have contaminates.
Also, nothing bought off the streets should be used in a vape. The Harvard Medical School says that people should stick with “brand name e-cigarette products without modification,” and while this may seem obvious, The Washington Post reports, for example, that it may have been counterfeit “vape materials” from China that are behind this year’s vaping-related lung illness outbreak.
The world’s vaping heartland is in Shenzhen, #China, where nearly every vape product is made. The factories we saw have strict quality controls, but a lack of regulation leaves the market vulnerable to low-quality and fakes. A special report for @TODAYshow https://t.co/toxav63Y3L pic.twitter.com/TkrOza18r6
— Janis Mackey Frayer (@janisfrayer) September 20, 2019
4. How much more research is required to know if vaping is safe?
An enormous amount of research is still needed to determine whether or not vaping is safer for the public than smoking. The current growth trend of vaporizer usage only really began in 2004 in China (and didn’t come to the U.S. and Europe until 2006), which means the phenomenon is only about 15 years old. Compare that to smoking tobacco, which has been studied by the scientific community for 50 to 100 years.
Pretty much every institution researched for this analysis stated in one form or another that the health effects of vaping are difficult to determine because so little research has been done. Even taking the liberal number for when vaping started to become popular and the conservative number for when scientists started studying the health effects of smoking, that still gives a gap in research time of more than three decades.
The American Cancer Society sums things up in this regard succinctly when it says that “e-cigarettes are still fairly new, and more research is needed over a longer period of time to know what the long-term [health] effects may be.”
Although a lot more research is needed, it seems fair to sum the vaping phenomenon up by saying that while it’s less of a health hazard than smoking, it should still generally be avoided—and under no circumstances should anything produced by “the black market” be vaped, as it may have contaminates. Consideration must also be given to how young people interact with vaping, because there’s no question it’s experiencing a meteoric rise amongst that segment of the population.
kids are vaping. the FDA and others call it an epidemic, concerns really spiking in 2018 (CDC chart below). This led to some reactionary policy making that is well-meaning, but some of it is now affecting availability to not just youth (good), but adults too (bad!), such as… 4/ pic.twitter.com/EaR90QHo7t
— Coffee Break (@coffeebreak_YT) July 26, 2019
And finally, from a basic common sense standpoint, it seems reasonable to say that, in general, there is a tradeoff for things that makes one feel good without the requirement of much prerequisite effort. If vaping brings a sense of elation or relaxation or any other immediate, positive benefit, what are the chances that it’s not having some longer-term negative effect? If there’s no such thing as a free lunch, why would there ever be such a thing as a free buzz?
What do you think of vaping and its health effects? Do you think it’s a step in the right direction, or is it just as harmful as smoking cigarettes? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Feature image: Vaping360