What is it? Risks/Benefits?
Dan Onion, MD, MPH
Mt. Vernon/Vienna Health Officer
Devices to deliver heated solutions of liquid nicotine ("e-juice”), mixed usually in propylene glycol or glycerol, have become popular. They are in the form of "pens" which have a reservoir for the nicotine, a heating element to vaporize it, and a battery to do the heating. They thus produce a nicotine-saturated vapor, which is inhaled, hence "vaping". At least 13-15% of adults have now tried this new way to rapidly absorb nicotine into the blood stream, usually not to feed their nicotine addiction but to help them stop old fashioned "burn" cigarettes and thus avoid the 1000s of bioactive chemicals therein, which cause various cancers (lung, head and neck, bladder) as well as ischemic heart disease. Studies so far suggest that there may be some marginal health benefit when these devices are used alone to assist adult smoking cessation as long as they are not used with a few conventional cigarettes daily. However, public health research shows that most people end up using the two together, and thus suffer the worst of both. Smoking cessation is more safely and reliably accomplished with nicotine patches, gum, or other proven medications, along with group or counselling support (see Vienna Newsletter, Feb-Mar, 2014: p6). Nobody yet knows if passive exposure from "nicotine vapers" is a significant risk to others nearby as it is for cigarettes. The adverse effects of vaping are only beginning to be understood, not surprisingly, since it took us 50 years to prove definitively the bad things smoking tobacco causes.
There are many proven as well as potential dangers to vaping. First, the rechargeable batteries can explode and burn, causing bad burns to the face or inside the pocket they are carried in. Nicotine causes faster heart beats and sometimes arrhythmias like atrial tachycardias or fibrillation. And nicotine itself is of course addicting and thus can prompt withdrawal symptoms, which often lead to higher use and/or use with regular cigarettes. Because the heat vaporized glycerol or propylene glycol liquid nicotine mix produces propylene oxide, formaldehyde, and acetylaldehyde, all known cancer-causing chemicals, most researchers expect that eventually we will see higher cancer rates in chronic or past users. Finally, some of the flavorings, especially sweet and cinnamon ones, added to attract new users to vaped nicotine mixes, break down, when heated, into diacetyl and benzaldehyde, compounds known to irritate the respiratory tract and thus can cause chronic bronchitis.
A second group of accidental or intentional users of vaped nicotine, are children and young adults respectively. The latter are now higher users than adults above age 25; surveys in 2015 reported that 15% of 11th graders had tried vaping nicotine. Nicotine impedes brain as well as global body development in the fetus if the pregnant mom uses either conventional tobacco or vaped nicotine. Accidental nicotine liquid exposure in young children from their eating, inhaling, or getting it on their skin or eyes, is just as bad as their eating real cigarettes; together both are responsible for 1000s of poison control center calls annually in the US. Over half of all such calls for nicotine liquid exposure are in this young age group; many are fatal. In teenagers and young adults up to age 25, studies show impaired judgment and other brain function maturation, and higher addiction rates to nicotine and other substances over time with chronic use. Unfortunately, there are few controls on use by these more vulnerable age groups. I went on Amazon today and could have bought all the equipment and supplies to get started myself for under $50. It's the wild west out there.
Finally, it's not just nicotine that can be used in these vaping devices. Inhaling caffeine and various vitamins this way, judging from the Amazon displays, is popular. Like the liquid nicotine, no one knows the long-term effects of sucking small particles of known and unknown substances into the lungs, but scarring and other damage seems likely over time. Lung replacements come hard. And, of course, liquid marijuana infusions can be taken this way too with rapid and extensive absorption; that too has similar bad effects on brain maturation in the young adult population.
So, my advice is: be cautious, read the surgeon general's report on vaping (https://e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov/); don't vape when pregnant; keep nicotine out of reach of young children; talk about the potential dangers with your teenage and young-adult kids and grandkids. Only opiates and alcohol use present a greater danger to them. I'm sure that someday we'll look back and say, "why didn't people realize this could happen and do something!"