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Is the Vaping ‘Epidemic’ More Dangerous Than We Realized?

Posted by David P. McCormack

David P. McCormack
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In December of 2018, the Surgeon General released an advisory pleading to the public that the epidemic of adolescent vaping be addressed immediately. Vaping by teens increased by 900% from 2011 to 2015. And it’s only been going up.

image credit: blacknote.com

As we discussed in this blog last fall, there is a common misconception that electronic cigarettes are somehow not harmful to users. But e-cigarettes are not harmless at all.

Because they have only recently become available, the effects of long-term e-cigarette use is not yet known. But even so, scientists and the FDA have already found real health risks, such as seizures, stress to the cardiovascular system, lung irritation, and even exploding vaping devices.

Nicotine may cause seizures

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a warning that nicotine-induced seizures could be a rare side effect of vaping. 

Over the past decade, there have been at least 35 reports of seizures following e-cigarette use. The FDA suspects that the case count of 35 is an underestimate, given that people submit these reports voluntarily. 

At this time, the FDA did not determine whether a particular brand or type of e-cigarette is more likely to initiate a seizure. Researchers know that seizures can be a side effect of nicotine poisoning – among many other effects of this addictive chemical.  

Nicotine may stress the cardiovascular system

Nicotine has a number of effects on the body’s circulatory system:  

  • Increases adrenaline
  • Activates nervous system
  • Raises blood pressure
  • Speeds up heart rate
  • Causes arteries to narrow 

No surprise that many studies suggest vaping may be bad for the heart.  

For example, a journal published by the Nature Review Cardiology stated it is possible that nicotine in e-cigarettes will contribute to cardiovascular events, “particularly in people with underlying cardiovascular disease.” Several other studies have found a link between regular vaping and an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and coronary artery disease.  

While the studies don’t prove e-cigarettes can cause these conditions, given the known cardiovascular effects of nicotine – and its addictiveness – there is likely a lot more to learn about vaping affects the body.  

“Nicotine-free” Vaping Still Has Health Risks

Recent studies have shown that the use of e-cigarettes increases concentration of microscopic pollutants in indoor environments. These tiny particles have been studied extensively in the context of air pollution and tobacco smoking.  

In those studies, researchers have linked exposure to small particles with heart attacks, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease.  

Although e-cigarettes do not produce smoke, breathing in the second-hand vapor is not harmless either. The aerosol from e-cigarettes contains many chemicals, including lead and other heavy metals.  

Many e-cigarettes also have flavorings which contain diacetyl, which has been linked to lung disease. (You may recall hearing about “popcorn lung” a decade ago. That’s the effect of diacetyl in the lungs. There is no cure.)  

Breathing vapor into the lungs irritates them, which has been demonstrated in recent research on wheezing. Researchers recently tracked over 25,000 adults to see whether e-cigarettes exacerbate wheezing. Some of the people in the study only used e-cigarettes; others were only smokers; others smoked and vaped; and some did not smoke or vape at all. The risk of wheezing among the vapers doubled compared with non-users.  

Exploding Vaping Devices

At the risk of being melodramatic, vaping devices have exploded and caused serious injuries.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement notifying users that vaping devices can explode and have caused injuries to people. Although they appear rare, these explosions are dangerous.  

The exact cause is not yet clear, but some evidence suggests that battery-related issues may lead to vape explosions. In 2017, the U.S. Fire Administration reported 133 acute injuries from e-cigarettes, vaporizers, and other similar devices between 2009 and 2016. 

Vaping within the Adolescent Population

Researchers are racing to find answers about the impact of vaping on adolescents. E-cigarette use among teens has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the Surgeon General, vaping among high school students increased by 900% from 2011 to 2015.  

Approximately two-thirds of teen JUUL users do not know that JUUL always contains nicotine.

Because the adolescent brain is still developing, they are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of nicotine. Most types of e-cigarettes contain nicotine. One JUUL pod contains roughly the same amount of nicotine found in 20 cigarettes (or one pack).  

These products also use nicotine salts, which allow particularly high levels of nicotine to be inhaled. This should concern us, as these higher levels of nicotine make the products even more addictive. Approximately two-thirds of teens that use JUUL do not know that JUUL always contains nicotine. They just don’t know the risks.


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