Jury still out on risks, benefits of e-cigarettes

Published 9:28 am Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Photo illustration by Brandon Hicks Shelby Smith vapes.

Photo illustration by Brandon Hicks
Shelby Smith vapes.

Vaping is a fast-growing trend, especially among those looking for an alternative to cigarettes, but debate still surrounds the question of whether it is a safer option than tobacco use.
What is vaping? Vaping is the act of inhaling water vapor through a personal vaporizer or electronic cigarette. When users draw on the device, the battery heats the liquid, which is then atomized into an inhalable vapor.
When Shelby Smith first started vaping a few years ago, his main goal was to stop using tobacco. Though not a smoker, Smith used smokeless tobacco, also known as dip or snus. His brother smoked cigarettes and the two of them decided to quit their tobacco use together.
“It was an overall health decision,” Smith said. “Cost was another factor.”
Once the brothers put down their tobacco, Smith found he enjoyed vaping and discovered there are a variety of devices and flavors to choose from.
One of the things Smith liked was the ability to decrease the dosage of nicotine as he worked toward quitting tobacco. The liquid used in vape devices, which is commonly called “juice,” comes in a variety of strengths from as high as 48 milligrams all the way down to 0 milligrams, which contains no nicotine.
“There is a strength out there for everyone,” he said.
Starting with the 24-milligram nicotine dosage, Smith said he was able to wean down his nicotine dependency.
“A lot of my juices don’t even have nicotine in them,” he said, adding when he does use a juice containing nicotine he uses the 3-milligram dosage.
The variety of flavors available is nearly endless, Smith said, adding his current favorite flavor is strawberry custard. “They use the same flavorings that are used in popcicles,” Smith said.
Even though he no longer uses nicotine on a regular basis, Smith said he continues to vape because he enjoys it.
“For me it’s a sort of social thing,” he said. “It’s become its own culture, its own talking point.”
Smith said he and his friends often talk about what juices they like, or what new vape device they saw or what kind of modifications (called mods) they want to get for their device. The vaporizing devices start as cheap as $10 with higher-end models ranging up into hundreds of dollars.
“You can spend just about as much money on this as you want or as little,” Smith said.
Some of Smith’s friends own a vape shop in the Tri-Cities and Smith works there part-time, which he said helps to feed his habit.
When asked about health concerns, Smith said he was not aware of any harmful side effects from vaping.
“There has not been one peer-reviewed study,” he said. “Right now there is a lot of finger-pointing.”
There have been some independent studies, Smith said, but nothing from the Food and Drug Administration.
“From those of us who have been doing it we’ve not seen any harmful effects,” Smith said, adding most of the ingredients in vape juice are already in many things people already ingest from foods.
According to the FDA website, only e-cigarettes that are marketed for therapeutic purposes are regulated by the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Currently, the FDA Center for Tobacco Products regulates cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco.
The FDA has issued a proposed rule that would extend the agency’s tobacco authority to cover additional products that meet the legal definition of a tobacco product, such as e-cigarettes.
“E-cigarettes have not been fully studied, so consumers currently don’t know: the potential risks of e-cigarettes when used as intended, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or whether there are any benefits associated with using these products,” the FDA website said. “Additionally, it is not known whether e-cigarettes may lead young people to try other tobacco products, including conventional cigarettes, which are known to cause disease and lead to premature death.”
It is the lack of information and research that have many people questioning whether e-cigarettes and vaping are truly as harmless as the manufactures want consumers to believe.
Anti-tobacco activist Patrick Reynolds, founder of Foundation for a Smokefree America and grandson of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, said he believes electronic cigarettes are dangerous.
“You see them everywhere. They are not regulated by the FDA,” Reynolds said. “We don’t know how dangerous they are. We don’t have any data.”
E-cigarettes contain “harmful and deadly chemicals,” Reynolds said, and manufacturers of the products use the same tactics in advertising that were once used by the big tobacco corporations.
“They are targeting children,” he said. “They use candy flavorings in their products.”
He said the big tobacco companies used those same tactics until the federal government put a stop to the practices.
Reynolds also questioned claims that vaping and e-cigarettes help smokers to quit using tobacco.
“Using e-cigarettes is trading one addiction for another,” Reynolds said. “There is no freedom in being a slave to nicotine.”
There are also concerns from those in the healthcare industry about the safety of vaping.
Darlene Hatley, a registered nurse and a certified facilitator for the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Tobacco program, cites the lack of research as the reason behind her concerns.
“There is no research out on it, no long-term research. We don’t know if it’s healthier,” she said. “For me, as a registered nurse, I can’t say this is healthier.”
Hatley teaches smoking cessation techniques, and while she does recommend nicotine replacement therapy products such as nicotine patches or gum, she said she does not recommend vaping as a way to stop smoking.
“People are taking chances now with nicotine, but at least we know what nicotine does,” she said.

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