“Vapes”, or E-cigarettes, have been a hot topic in the news for a while. Initially marketed as a way to curb one’s smoking habits, vaping quickly became a habit unto itself. Soon, vaping took off as the new “cool” thing to do, and in plenty of cases any attempts by schools to crack down on their usage on-campus only compounded their cool factor. And while many may rejoice in the decline of cigarette usage among today’s youth, many also see vapes as equally- or more- dangerous than their tobacco-based counterparts. There are many e-cigarette regulations in place on both the state and federal level in the US, with many locations going so far as to ban or temporarily halt the sale of certain vaping products altogether. President Trump has expressed an interest in pulling all flavored e-cigarette products from the market in an effort to restrict youth access to them. But all of this begs the question- how could a supposedly “safe” alternative to tobacco rise to the same levels of danger as the thing it is trying to replace? Let’s take a look at some of the stats and determine if the vaping crisis really is a “crisis” after all.
First of all, let’s talk about tobacco. Tobacco products are highly addictive due to them containing nicotine, a substance that triggers an increase in dopamine production. Dopamine is one of the brain’s “pleasure chemicals,” which can create a euphoric response. Tobacco use causes one to grow accustomed to this flood of dopamine, which in turn creates a desire for further dopamine stimulation; this is what ultimately creates a nicotine addiction. While nicotine itself is not a particularly harmful chemical, tobacco products often contain many other harmful substances that can cause a plethora of health problems. Cigarettes contain about 600 ingredients, and when burned, they can create more than 7000 chemicals, including ammonia, butane, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and lead. At least 69 of these are known to cause cancer, and many – if not all – are toxic. Cigarette smoking causes more than 480000 deaths a year in the US (about 1 in 5) and account for more deaths than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, and firearm-related incidents – combined. Worldwide, the number is much higher, with about 6 million deaths being caused by smoking a year.
So cigarettes are obviously very dangerous. Why, then, do so many people continue to use them? After all, the tobacco industry is estimated to make upwards of $60 billion a year, so clearly cigarettes must be fairly popular products. Unfortunately, the reality is that many smokers want to quit, but are simply unable to. As many as 70% of smokers in America want to kick the habit, but even with good cessation programs only around 20-40% are able to stop smoking and stay off cigarettes for at least a year. Tobacco use is a very difficult thing to give up, so it’s no wonder that many people seek alternatives to smoking that are (or are supposed to be) healthier, but still deliver the same buzz. That’s where the vapes come in. Vapes work by using a battery to heat up a cartridge of a liquid substance, creating steam that can be inhaled. Vapes were originally marketed as a way to curb a smoking habit, and as a result they contain nicotine. The idea behind this is to essentially “transfer” a person’s addiction to something other than tobacco – something that could give the same satisfaction as smoking but without all the associated health problems. The problem here is that, while vapes originally were made for this purpose, they now have become an abusable substance unto themselves. As many as 2 million young adults use e-cigarettes as their first nicotine product, meaning they aren’t using them to quit smoking since they’ve never smoked before. As a result of this, vaping companies have started to make their products to be more appealing and fun to use on their own, rather than as simply an alternative to something else. This, of course, comes at the cost of safety, as vape companies begin to pump their products full of harmful chemicals all in the name of making them taste better. The biggest issue with vapes is their lack of regulation. Since the FDA ruled them not to be a drug delivery service, the agency has no jurisdiction over them, therefore meaning that vape companies can add all sorts of dangerous chemicals to their products. Research has shown that many vapes contain diethylene glycol, a component in antifreeze. Tests have also found detectable levels of nitrosamine, a carcinogen. Another big issue is the fact that vapes are relatively new to the market, meaning that there hasn’t been much time to conduct research into what is really being put into vapes. But probably the most glaring danger of vaping is the ease with which the chemicals within vaping pods can be swapped out for other substances. As if the liquid intended to be used in vaping cartridges didn’t sound like enough of a health hazard, many opt to fill their vapes with chemicals like THC, the active compound in marijuana, flakka, a stimulant similar to methamphetamines and cocaine, and even DMT, which is often cited as the most powerful hallucinogen in the world.
All of this begs the question: how much damage have vapes really caused? Well, before you ask- yes, people have died from vaping. As of October 2019, the current death count for vaping-related illnesses in the US is 42, according to the CDC. While that may not sound like much, keep in mind that these deaths have all occurred within the span of a few months. The first vaping illness-related death in the US occurred in August of 2019, meaning that about 3 people have lost their lives every week since then. Another thing to keep in mind is that the long-term effects of vaping (especially when other unintended substances are used) are still largely unknown, meaning that we could see a drastic increase in vaping complications later in users’ lives. Around 2000 cases of lung problems and diseases have been attributed to vaping, and it is very likely that that number will continue to rise as people continue to vape. But if the chemical complications of vaping aren’t enough to deter one from vaping, perhaps the dangers of vape pens themselves would be. These devices have shown themselves to be rather prone to random explosions, which could cause serious bodily harm if one happens to be using a vape at the time of an incident like this. Take, for example, a 17-year-old boy from Nevada who had a hole blown in his jaw after an e-cigarette, without warning, blew up in his face. Or, even scarier, a 24-year-old from Texas who lost his life after fragments of an exploding vape sliced open a major blood vessel in his neck.
These escalating incidents of vape-related tragedies do make it clear that e-cigarettes are dangerous, but does any of this qualify as a crisis? The answer, unfortunately, is no one knows. As mentioned before, we really only know the short-term effects of vaping. Perhaps later on down the road, vaping companies will be able to produce their products with fewer harmful chemicals or less explosion-prone components, alleviating some of the risks associated with vaping. The danger in making such hasty decisions as banning all vapes is that the sale of e-cigarettes could then be delegated to much more irreputable organizations- “black markets” if you will. If that happens, all bets are off. If mainstream vape companies nowadays already pump their products full of enough dangerous chemicals, there’s no telling what things shady, criminal drug rings might cram into their vapes to make a quick buck off of their consumers. Likely the best thing the general public can do right now is to inform themselves and others of the risks associated with e-cigarettes, and to refrain from partaking in them except for their intended manner- to quit using tobacco.