Breast Cancer Awareness Month

It may help curb smoking, but users are more susceptible to the dangers of chemicals

The vaping phenomenon has made big news recently as federal health officials scramble to identify what’s in e-cigarettes and other vaping devices that’s sending users – mostly teens and young adults – to the hospital with severe lung disease.

Since earlier this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports more than 450 possible cases of lung illness – including six deaths – associated with the popular practice.

One important thing to note: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) links most of the illnesses to illegal cannabis-related products, specifically THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, a psychoactive component of the marijuana plant. The agency also says many of the THC-products contained significant amounts of vitamin E acetate. The FDA hasn’t concluded if the vitamin E acetate caused the lung injuries in the reported cases.

Until U.S. health investigators specifically determine what exactly caused the outbreak, the CDC urged consumers in a health advisory to not buy vaping products on the street and/or modify their e-cigarette devices.

Whew! I don’t vape with illicit THC oils. Vaping remains safe for me, right?

Well, vaping never was considered completely safe. Vaping devices are relatively new, with e-cigarettes showing up on retailer’s shelves in 2016 as a safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes.

As inhalation toxicologist Ilona Jaspers observes, if it took epidemiologists decades to learn that regularly inhaling the 7,000-plus chemicals in cigarettes could kill you, what does that say for the hidden dangers of vaping?

Vaping largely remains a mystery. Are its ingredients safe to inhale? What about over the long-term?  Young people, the most vulnerable consumers of vaping, think using e-cigarettes is mostly harmless. The emerging data suggests otherwise.

Startling numbers of young e-cigarette users

  • 3.6 million middle and high school students currently use e-cigarettes
  • 11 percent of high school seniors, 8 percent of 10th-graders, and 3.5 percent of eighth-graders vaped with nicotine during a previous one month period
  • In 2015, the U.S. surgeon general reported that e-cigarette use among high school students had increased by 900 percent, and 40 percent of young e-cigarette users had never smoked regular tobacco

In 2017, more young kids got their nicotine fix from using e-cigs than with any other tobacco-like product. In 2011, the number of kids who vaped? Almost zero.

And, as the New England Journal of Medicine put it: “Nicotine is amazingly addictive.” Each day in the U.S., about 2,000 kids younger than age 18 smoke their first cigarette. More than 300 of kids under 18 become daily cigarette smokers. The editorial reiterates the scientific fact: that “nicotine is a gateway drug that lowers the threshold for addiction to other agents, the use of e-cigarettes could help spawn even more opioid addiction.”

What is vaping, technically speaking?

So let’s learn a little bit more about vaping.

“Aerosoling” doesn’t sound as cool as “vaping,” but that’s what aerosolers – OK, vapers – do when they use e-cigarettes or other battery powered devices that deliver nicotine to their brain.

Aerosols, unlike vapors, are a suspension of fine particles of a liquid, solid, or both in a gas. Vaping devices such as e-cigarettes produce an aerosol by heating a liquid that typically contains nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals that help make the aerosol.

The liquids go by all kinds of names, such as e-juice, e-liquid, vape juice, pods, or oil. Propylene glycol and/or glycerin-- the base solvents of vape juice – typically are mixed with nicotine and “flavorants” meant to appeal to would-be and first-time vapers.

I quit smoking, but I vape nicotine instead. It’s better for me, right?

Congratulations on quitting smoking! But vaping isn’t the way to go, especially if you’re younger than age 25. Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which can harm the developing brains of teens and young adults. According to the CDC, nicotine impairs the ability of young people’s brains to form synapses up until age 25.

And although they’ve been marketed as an aid to help you quit smoking, the FDA hasn’t approved e-cigarettes as smoking cessation devices. A recent study found that most people who intended to use e-cigarettes to kick the nicotine habit ended up continuing to smoke both traditional and e-cigarettes.

I don’t vape nicotine. I’m only smoking flavored e-cigarettes.

You’re getting there, but you’re still away from your best, healthy self. That’s because some ingredients in e-cigarette aerosols could also harm the lungs in the long-term. For example, some e-cigarette flavorings may be safe to eat but not to inhale because the gut can process more substances than the lungs.

Also, those tasty flavors such as crème brûlée, cotton candy, and mango smoothies? They’re mixed with solvents that create compounds called acetals, which are known to cause lung irritation when inhaled.

Here’s what else is lurking in aerosols that may harm your body:

  • Ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs
  • Flavoring such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease
  • Volatile organic compounds
  • Cancer-causing chemicals
  • Heavy metals such as nickel, tin, and lead

Just say no to it all

“In my opinion, the CDC health advisory doesn’t go far enough,” says Dr. Salvatore Lacagnina, system medical director of wellness at Lee Health. “In order to prevent chronic illness, a better recommendation would be to tell the public not to inhale any substance into the lungs that may cause potential harm.”

Dr. Sal says the lungs aren’t designed to inhale nicotine, oil or the hundreds of unknown chemicals found in e-cigarettes, and certainly not the hundreds of cancer-causing chemicals in cigarettes.

“We’ve known for many decades that tobacco in cigarettes causes cancer, emphysema, and a host of other respiratory illnesses,” Dr. Sal says. “The problem with the newer e-cigarettes is that we don’t know what specific illnesses they cause. With these hundreds of cases of severe respiratory problems causing teenagers and adults to be hospitalized, we can assume that they can have no positive health effects.”

What’s in an e-cigarette aerosol?

E-cigarette aerosol is NOT harmless “water vapor.”

The e-cigarette aerosol that users breathe from the device and exhale can contain harmful and potentially harmful substances, including:

  • Nicotine
  • Ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs
  • Flavoring such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease
  • Volatile organic compounds
  • Cancer-causing chemicals
  • Heavy metals such as nickel, tin, and lead

It is difficult for consumers to know what e-cigarette products contain. For example, some e-cigarettes marketed as containing zero percent nicotine have been found to contain nicotine.

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