The fat cats of big tobacco had to know that they couldn’t keep the market cornered forever. Indeed, the concept of vaping – that is, the practice of inhaling nicotine via an e-cigarette or vape pen – has its roots in the early 1960s with Herbert Gilbert’s 1963 patent of the “Smokeless Non-Tobacco Cigarette.” But it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that e-cigarettes hit the mainstream in a big way.
Whether vaping is a simply a market trend or a passing fad remains to be seen. But its burgeoning appeal has surely affected tobacco companies in a big way, both with respect to the continued appeal of conventional tobacco products as well as presenting an alternative to the dangers that are widely associated with long-term tobacco use. According to the American Lung Association, smoking regular cigarettes and cigars remains “the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States,” causing over 438,000 deaths ever year. Secondhand smoke and smokeless tobacco products are also tied to many thousands of heath problems, including cancer.
But while vaping and e-cigarettes have been hailed as a “safe” alternative to old-school smoking, a number of risks associated with these products are slowly coming to light. While some cases are more sensational and horrific than others, each new tale of vape-related misfortune serves as a reminder that there remains much to be learned about the ultimate benefits and drawbacks of vaping and e-cigarettes. Whether vaping and e-cigarettes are used as a tool for smoking cessation or simply as some kind of lifestyle accoutrement, the first decade and a half of their prevalence has yielded a number of alarming hazards, including the risk of illness, serious injury, and in extreme situations, even death.
10. Popcorn Lung
Here’s a medical condition that is just unsettling and unpleasant as it sounds. Known clinically as bronchiolitis obliterans, the problem was originally associated with workers at a microwave popcorn plant who inhaled large quantities of artificial butter containing a chemical called diacetyl. According to a report by the online magazine Your Health, the affected workers suffered respiratory problems including coughing and wheezing due to accumulations of scar tissue in their lungs. Some people afflicted with the condition have even required lung transplants.
Diacetyl is also a key ingredient in a number of popular vaping flavors, as noted by a report published by The Harvard School of Public Health in late 2015. Moreover, while some companies advertise that their products do not contain diacetyl, independent analysis detected the presence of the potentially harmful chemical.
Some reports refute concerns regarding diacetyl and popcorn lung with regard to vaping, calling study findings “hyperbolic” and referring to media reports as “overblown.” But given the fact that popcorn lung is irreversible and potentially life-threatening, it is clear that more study and a fair amount of caution is merited in the future.
9. Accidental Nicotine Poisoning
A recent study by the medical journal Pediatrics noted a significant rise in nicotine-related poisoning among young children, most of whom accidentally ingested the liquid chemicals used in e-cigarettes. NBC News cited results from the study, which compiled the origins and outcomes of thousands of calls to poison control centers over exposure to e-cigarettes over a period of approximately three years. While most of the cases were not serious, a handful of children suffered seizures and comas and one child died as a result of nicotine poisoning.
Symptoms of nicotine poisoning include sudden bouts of anxiety and confusion as well as an increased heart rate, nausea, and vomiting. Keeping e-cig paraphernalia out of the reach of children is one of the simplest ways to prevent accidental nicotine poisoning, but as the online resource Quit Smoking Community notes, stopping use of the products altogether is the best method of prevention.
8. Increased Use Among Youth
Is the “coolness factor” associated with vaping a throwback to the days of Joe Camel? According to information compiled by the American Lung Association, vaping and e-cigarette use is on the rise in a big way. Citing a report by the Center for Disease Control, use of these products by high school and middle school children tripled from 2013 to 2014. In 2014, 13.4 percent of high school students reported use of e-cigarettes, up from 4.5 percent the year before. Among middle school students, the figure increased from 1.1 percent to 3.9 percent during the same period.
The aforementioned study further noted that use of e-cigarettes by minors has now “surpassed” use of conventional tobacco products. The significant rise in use is attributed to some of the same critiques leveled at tobacco marketing in the past, including advertising strategies that appeal to youth as well as the products’ use of appealing flavors. As noted above, the presence of nicotine and other chemicals in e-cigarettes presents cause for concern by parents and industry watchdogs, who fear that early use by teens and pre-teens could lead to long-term addiction, poisoning, and associated health risks.
It might be effectively argued that the much-maligned phenomenon of “secondhand smoke” was one of the primary motivations for legislation banning smoking in public places. The mere notion that a non-smoker might be afflicted with lung cancer or another smoking-related illness simply because of exposure to smoke-filled environments was a significant incentive to ban smoking in places like bars and restaurants. But repeated assertions that e-cigarettes are ostensibly lacking in the kind of carcinogens found in regular cigarettes and cigars does not necessarily instil confidence in some circles.
Studies cited by the American Lung Association note that formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and benzene are among some of the harmful chemicals detected in e-cigarette emissions. Whether or not these substances are concentrated enough to harm individuals via secondhand inhalation remains to be seen, but there is enough concern regarding potential health risks that indoor vaping has been prohibited in some communities.
6. Trigger Warning!
While proponents of e-cigarettes have championed the product as a safer alternative to tobacco use, a number of medical studies suggest that the claim is dubious, at best. Moreover, use of vaping products seems to have the potential to trigger some users to return to regular cigarettes in time. A National Institute of Health study entitled, “E-Cigarettes: A Scientific Review” suggested that many users struggle to completely discontinue tobacco use while using e-cigarettes, noting a high “relapse rate” among smokers who look to e-cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco use.
For longtime smokers, even advertising for e-cigarettes can trigger the urge to return to tobacco use, as visual “cues” that remind people of the similarities between smoking and vaping can prompt powerful desires to return to a familiar vice.
5. Cytotoxicity And Damaged DNA
Put simply, the clinical term “cytotoxicity” refers to how poisonous a substance is to cells. A study in late 2015 concluded that “e-cigarette vapor, both with and without nicotine, is cytotoxic” to tissues in organs and blood vessels. Further, these chemicals were found to damage DNA and cause cell death. These problems were detected after only a week of e-cigarette use, irrespective of whether the products contained nicotine or not. The authors indicated that further study is required to determine if these changes at the cellular level would ultimately result in the types of mutations that cause cancer.
The aforementioned study, archived online by the web site Oral Oncology, noted that the burgeoning market of vaping devices and nicotine-infused substances has made it increasingly difficult to properly regulate the industry and assess new products for potential health risks. In the present market, there appears to be a new emphasis on devices that can deliver larger and more concentrated doses of chemicals, increasing the likelihood for greater damage at the cellular level.
4. Down With The Sickness
There is some disagreement over whether or not vaping can actually make users sick, as those who switch to e-cigarettes often report flu-like symptoms that could be caused by withdrawal from regular cigarettes. But a 2014 study by National Jewish Health suggests that the chemicals in e-cigarettes weaken the body’s natural defenses to the common cold.
Researchers were not able to say which chemicals in e-cigarettes were directly responsible for the “immune-suppressing” effect, adding that changes happen quickly after the body’s initial intake of chemicals associated with e-cigarettes. Within six hours of exposure, exposed cells harbored more of the viruses introduced by researchers, subsequently producing more “inflammatory” proteins and less infection-fighting proteins, according to an account by Men’s Health.
3. The ‘Methadone’ To Tobacco’s ‘Heroin’
A Web MD article on the pros and cons of e-cigarette use compares the use of such products as a means of smoking cessation to the controversial treatment of heroin users by providing them with prescribed doses of methadone. A commonly touted statistic holds that e-cigarettes are “95 percent safer” than their old school predecessors, but substitution of one nicotine product with another does not resolve the underlying issue of addiction, clinically known as nicotine dependence.
Nicotine dependence is a diagnostic term characterized by compulsive use of that drug as well as the manifestation of withdrawal symptoms when users attempt to quit. In addition to the health risks noted above, individuals who are dependent on nicotine might find themselves unable to resist the temptation to continue use despite negative consequences, spending increased amount of time and money in finding and products that contain the drug.
2. Exploding Devices
Arguably the most well-publicized vaping related hazard, it seems that some devices associated with the practice have a tendency to blow up, sometimes causing serious injury to e-cigarette enthusiasts. Broken bones, lost teeth, and severe burns have been attributed to exploding vape pens and e-cigarettes in the recent past.
According to an article by Wired, 25 cases of e-cigarette explosions were reported over the five year period from 2009 to 2014. But around 12 more such incidents occurred in 2015, with an increase in these cases likely due to increased use, especially among young people. Of course, the fact that these explosions make for shocking viral videos has increased awareness of this particular danger, as well.
Wired notes that cheaply made lithium-ion batteries, which are the power source for e-cigarettes and related products can explode when over-charged, resulting in the above-noted injuries. Vaping devices can also become filled with a conductive filament called dendrite during the course of repeated charging cycles. An abundance of dendrite can cause a short-circuit inside the device, causing it to catch fire.
In one particularly harrowing case, a vape enthusiast in Albany, New York suffered burns and broken teeth when the battery in his e-cigarette exploded. The blast also tore a hole in his tongue. He told reporters that it felt like an M80 firecracker exploded inside his mouth.
1. Serious Lung Injury
Although many of the hazards associated with vaping unfold and compound over time, some injuries can occur in the blink of an eye. As reported by The Huffington Post, a man from Surrey, England suffered burns to his throat and lung after his e-cigarette “spilled hot liquid down his throat.” The fluid also burned a hole in his right lung.
“I went to [the] hospital,” explained 33-year-old Richard Courtney. “One of the nurses there put my vape on an oxygen tube and showed that it was spitting liquid out.”
Courtney ended up seeking medical treatment twice over breathing problems related to his e-cigarette, eventually learning that he had lost 75% of his lung capacity due to the liquid nicotine burns. He received medical treatment for his condition, including a prescription inhaler. He also indicated that he has given up vaping for good, returning to conventional cigarettes that he rolls himself.