Few people take up smoking in their thirties. It’s a habit young people pick up in their teens and early twenties to make a statement about their burgeoning adulthood and putting aside of childish things. It’s a part of an ancient recipe whose other ingredients include motorcycles, alcohol, fast cars, and faster girls (or boys). It’s not just opinion - a 2012 study from USC and the University of Texas found that the most popular high schoolers were more likely to be those who smoked.
And while the motorcycles are stored under tarpaulin in the garage, and the muscle car is eventually traded in for a more practical minivan which can haul three kids and a dog cross country, cigarettes tend to stay a beloved part of most adults lives. In 1965 there were 50 million smokers in the US. By 2000, that number had dropped to around 45 million, and whichever way you spin it, those numbers don’t point to an overwhelming success by the anti-smoking lobby.
But here’s a curious thing: as we entered the second decade of the millenium, electronic cigarettes started to appear in people’s hands. They were new, they had weird blue LEDs, they smelt of candyfloss and apples, and in 2014, the CDC reported that more than 9 million Americans were regularly taking their nicotine in digital format. And their popularity isn’t going away any time soon, as of 2016, the vaping market in the US was worth a staggering $12 billion.
What’s the appeal?
For the older market, the appeal is obvious. Most smokers want to quit. After a certain age, the ‘cool appeal of smoking fades and they’re stuck with an expensive habit, failing fitness, loss of sexual potency, stinky clothes, and are banned from engaging in their malodorous habit in enclosed public spaces in the US. There’s a social stigma, and an assumption among most non-smokers that addicts are poorly educated, and of a lower social order. That’s not to mention the insane costs that come hand in hand with a cancer diagnosis in America.
The chances are that they’ve already tried quitting and failed multiple times. Nicotine patches have some limited success, as do the various gums, lozenges and sweets. Zyban - one of the more effective drugs - comes with a range of unpleasant side effects and can actually kill users
Electronic cigarettes were just one more potential remedy to try, but one which shockingly seems to work as a full or partial replacement for cigarettes. There’s no tar, and no carbon monoxide produced, meaning that users usually feel an immediate benefit. And there’s also the convenience factor - electronic cigarettes can be purchased in gas stations, chemists, mall kiosks, and most other places you would be able to purchase real cigarettes.
A typical teenage response to authority |Credit: Diego Silva Galan CC BY-SA 2.0
There’s the added bonus that vaping is harder to detect - there’s no lingering tobacco odor, and vape pens can be easily concealed in pockets, on key rings, or even disguised as USB sticks. Where in years gone by up to 70 % of teens would be casual smokers, a decent proportion of that market has now been won over by vaping.
What’s the controversy?
It would be straightforward to think that any new product which helps adults to give up smoking, improves health, and prevents kids from taking up the habit would deserve to be greeted with open arms. But electronic cigarettes have not received the universally rapturous response you might expect. And there are a few good reasons for this.
A worry shared by many people is that by replacing conventional cigarettes with their electronic equivalents, users are simply swapping out one bunch of poisons for another. And looking at the ingredients list on a bottle of vape juice does very little to assuage their concerns: Propylene glycol, nicotine, a whole bunch of unpronounceable chemicals.
The truth is that only one of the ingredients in your vape juice is (as far as we know) actually a poison. Nicotine is a powerful neurotoxin, and there’s no getting away from that. It can and and absolutely will kill you under the wrong circumstances. Those circumstance would involve a close to 100% concentration, and probably drinking it neat as wel. But as any experienced vaper would tell you, the nausea and sickness you feel from inhaling too much will cause you to throw up before any permanent harm is done.
It’s in antifreeze. It’s a solvent. It’s used to make plastics. Surely propylene glycol, the main component of most e-juice blends, can’t be good for you?
No, but no-one’s suggesting that propylene glycol has any benefits for your health. It doesn’t have any negative impact either. The Food and Drug Administration states that propylene glycol “is generally considered to be a safe chemical,” “breaks down very quickly in the body,” and “is acceptable for use in flavorings, drugs, and cosmetics, and as a direct food additive.”
Propylene glycol is used in electronic cigarettes for the simple reason that it breaks down into water vapor when heated. Vapers are quite literally breathing in steam.
The other stuff
Anything else listed as an ingredient is likely to have an extremely long and complicated chemical name. These are usually food flavorings and colorings - The kind of thing you might put in a cake or a pastry.
Granted, unless you have an utterly insatiable appetite, you’re unlikely to be sucking these chemicals directly into your lungs, but professional chefs do. Right?
Potential health issues
One major problem with assessing the health risks associated with vaping is that it hasn’t been around long enough to make a proper assessment. The negative health impacts of smoking have been well documented precisely because it has been so prevalent for so long. Vaping isn’t at that point yet.
Nonetheless, there have been a couple of significant scares, which have made users and potential users have second thoughts.
It’s a phrase almost custom built to fill you with dread. Lungs aren’t supposed to look, function, or in any other way resemble America’s favorite theatre snack.
Also known as bronchiolitis obliterans, ‘Popcorn Lung’ causes obstruction, inflammation and scarring of lung tissue, and reduces the usable lung volume by up to 90%. It’s not nice. The disease is, while not common, most prevalent among workers in the nylon industry, battery manufacturers and food industry workers who work with the diacetyl chemical - responsible for the butterscotch flavour of popcorn.
Delicious, but not what you want sitting in your chest | credit: Veggiefrog CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
And it’s because of this butterscotch flavor that diacetyl has an association with vaping. Butterscotch is delicious and sweet. The flavouring is cheap and easy to make. And there is a definite link between diacetyl flavoring and popcorn lung. It’s easy to point an accusatory finger at electronic cigarettes.
But there has not been one single case of vaping related popcorn lung ever reported. Ever.
Another, less well-known fact, is that diacetyl is present in conventional cigarettes at far higher concentrations than in e juice.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder is another nasty sounding illness and it does exactly what it says on the tin. The short version is that it gets worse over time and it makes it progressively more difficult for an affected person to breathe.
Over 90% cases are caused by smoking, and while it is not yet known if the condition can be caused by vaping, it has been suggested by one study that the nicotine in e-liquids, “triggered the effects associated with the development of COPD.”
It’s too early to tell what the long term effects might be.
But think of the children!
We’ve established that teens are rebellious, tend to indulge in dangerous behaviour, and will absolutely go out of their way to annoy and worry any adults who care enough about them to express an opinion.
It’s part of growing up. It’s a rite of passage. Stone age teenagers were doing it, and no doubt 1,000 years from now, the descendants of the first Martian colonists will be surfing down Olympus Mons backwards while setting fire to alien vegetation for thrills.
Parents and other responsible adults need to accept this behaviour, and look at the relative risks.
If my child is vaping, are they smoking?
No. They’re two superficially similar, but totally different things. Cigarettes contain somewhere in the region of 6,000 different chemicals. Most of these are toxic to some degree.
Electronic cigarettes usually contain six chemicals. Exactly one of these is known to be toxic, and even then, only under specific circumstances. It is almost impossible to suffer fatal nicotine poisoning from electronic cigarettes.
But electronic cigarettes are addictive!
Again, the technology hasn’t been around long enough to establish solid facts on this, and there’s a great deal of equivocation in academic circles, but the evidence points to the addictiveness in nicotine in cigarettes being dependent on other chemicals. Chemicals which are not present in electronic cigarettes. Of course, vaping may be habit forming, but there is, as yet, no hard evidence pointing towards this.
Can someone underage vape a nicotine-free vape juice?
Nicotine is harsh. It’s scratchy on the back of your throat, and unless it’s something you’ve been introduced to through regular smoking there’s no real reason why underage teens would want to subject themselves to the unpleasantness. After all, if they’ve bought the gear, they can look the part - exhaling huge clouds of strawberry scented steam and alarming passers-by.
But is it legal? The short answer is possibly - although it’s not something you or they would want to test in court. The FDA considers nicotine free e-juice to still be a tobacco product, but without nicotine in their juice, underage vapers are simply inhaling steam mixed with food flavorings through a device which heats the juice up. That’s it.
Are there 100% safe nicotine free e-juices for e-cigarettes?
Oh hell no. Nothing is 100% safe ever. Even if you were just inhaling steam on its own - that’s not 100% safe, as high humidity is great for viruses and bacteria to survive and thrive. Once you add in food flavorings - designed to be ingested rather than inhaled, we’re in unknown territory.
But whichever territory it is, vaping is nowhere near as harmful as tobacco smoking.
Vaping isn’t as simple as smoking. Instead of applying a lit match to dried organic material, vapers are pressing high technology to their lips and breathing in a hot mix of designer chemicals. Even if the chemicals don’t harm you, the technology might.
It’s probably not a surprise to learn that electronic cigarettes use batteries to provide the power to run them. But these aren’t the AAA variety that you use in your TV zapper. The latest generation of advanced vaping devices use 20700 batteries, which are long life, power dense, and were pioneered by Tesla to power their cars. We’re not kidding - they pack a hell of a punch and are perfect if you use want a moderately high powered device which will last all day.
But even with their extraordinary charge capacity, it’s not uncommon for vapers to keep a spare in their pocket ‘just in case’.
Unfortunately, it’s also not uncommon for vapers to keep other items in their pockets. Metallic items such as keys, coins, and other paraphernalia.
These can cause the battery to short circuit, and lead to a phenomenon known as ‘thermal runaway’. This sounds exactly as bad as it is. The battery heats up. Its internal protections break down, it heat up even more, and in a very short time it explodes or catches fire - potentially taking most of your trouser area with it.
There’s a simple solution here - store batteries separately from anything and everything else. Most retailers provide batteries in a purpose built carry case. Use it.
Like any electronic device which relies on chargers, it’s important to get the right one for your electronic cigarette - preferably one supplied by the manufacture.
Lithium Ion batteries have a maximum charge rate. If this is exceeded, the battery will heat up, and as in the previous example, there’s a potential for thermal runaway.
In 2014 there were 80 charger related fires in the UK alone
It's up to you really.
The prospect of having your pants set on fire is not, perhaps, the best note to end on, but consider this: Fires caused by smoking cause around 1,500 deaths, 16,000 hospitalisations, and 400,000 injuries in the US each year. Compared to this, the number of fires caused by electronic cigarettes is an insignificant drop in the ocean.
Yes. It is a non-zero risk, but compared with the alternative, it is infinitely better.
In fact nothing to do with electronic cigarettes is completely risk free. But in every possible way, they seem to present less of a risk than smoking the old fashioned way.
Obviously, this might change in the future, but as we understand it now, there is no link between vaping and lung cancer, a minimal possible link between vaping and COPD, and minimal evidence suggesting that vaping acts as a teenage gateway to tobacco or any other kind of drug abuse.
It has also proved extraordinarily effective in getting Americans to stop smoking, when virtually every other treatment has proved either ineffective or dangerous.
Anecdotal evidence exists in abundance of individuals who have switched to vaping and successfully reduced their nicotine intake to the point where they have been able to ditch both the analogue and digital versions of cigarettes. And the UK national health Service actually recommends that smokers take up vaping as a way off smokers reducing the harm they do to themselves.
In the end it’s your decision whether or not you want to give up smoking and how you want to go about it. Vaping is only one way among may you may look at. But it does seem to work.