Vaping: The new wave of nicotine addiction

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Figure 1. Various vaping devices. Source: The US Food and Drug Administration

Figure 1. Various vaping devices.

E-cigarettes, the most common type of electronic nicotine delivery system,1 look like conventional cigarettes. Designs vary, but the devices generally contain a power source (typically a lithium battery), a heating element, and a reservoir for the “e-liquid” (Figure 1). The e-liquid typically consists of a solvent (propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin), flavorings (eg, tobacco, mint, fruit, bubblegum), and, often, nicotine in various doses. When the user inhales, the negative pressure closes a switch, turning on the heater, which turns some of the liquid into an aerosol, which is inhaled. The aerosol may contain nicotine, but formulations are proprietary and not currently regulated.

Vape pens consist of similar elements but are not necessarily similar in appearance to a conventional cigarette, and may look more like a pen or a USB flash drive. In fact, the Juul device is recharged by plugging it into a USB port.

Vaping devices have many street names, including e-cigs, e-hookahs, vape pens, mods, vapes, and tank systems.

The first US patent application for a device resembling a modern e-cigarette was filed in 1963, but the product never made it to the market.16 Instead, the first commercially successful e-cigarette was created in Beijing in 2003 and introduced to US markets in 2007.

Newer-generation devices have larger batteries and can heat the liquid to higher temperatures, releasing more nicotine and forming additional toxicants such as formaldehyde. Devices lack standardization in terms of design, capacity for safely holding e-liquid, packaging of the e-liquid, and features designed to minimize hazards of use.

Not just nicotine

Many devices are designed for use with other drugs, including THC.17 In a 2018 study, 10.9% of college students reported vaping marijuana in the past 30 days, up from 5.2% in 2017.18

Other substances are being vaped as well.19 In theory, any heat-stable psychoactive recreational drug could be aerosolized and vaped. There are increasing reports of e-liquids containing recreational drugs such as synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists, crack cocaine, LSD, and methamphetamine.17

Freedom, rebellion, glamour

Sales have risen rapidly since 2007 with widespread advertising on television and in print publications for popular brands, often featuring celebrities.20 Spending on advertising for e-cigarettes and vape devices rose from $6.4 million in 2011 to $115 million in 2014—and that was before the advent of Juul (see below).21

Marketing campaigns for vaping devices mimic the themes previously used successfully by the tobacco industry, eg, freedom, rebellion, and glamour. They also make unsubstantiated claims about health benefits and smoking cessation, though initial websites contained endorsements from physicians, similar to the strategies of tobacco companies in old cigarette ads. Cigarette ads have been prohibited since 1971—but not e-cigarette ads. Moreover, vaping products appear as product placements in television shows and movies, with advocacy groups on social media.22

By law, buyers have to be 18 or 21

Table 2. US states in which the minimum age for buying tobacco is 21
In 2016, the FDA published rules and regulations for the sale of tobacco products—including e-cigarettes—deeming them to be subject to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as amended by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, placing restrictions on their sale and distribution, and requiring warning statements on them.23 Notably, it prohibited sale of tobacco products to anyone younger than 18 (and 18 US states now require buyers to be at least 21; Table 2). The FDA also prohibited sales in vending machines, except in locations that are inaccessible to youth.

Vaping devices can be purchased at vape shops, convenience stores, gas stations, and over the Internet; up to 50% of sales are conducted online.24

Fruit flavors are popular

Zhu et al25 estimated that 7,700 unique vaping flavors exist, with fruit and candy flavors predominating. The most popular flavors are tobacco and mint, followed by fruit, dessert and candy flavors, alcoholic flavors (strawberry daiquiri, margarita), and food flavors.25 These flavors have been associated with higher usage in youth, leading to increased risk of nicotine addiction.26


The Juul device (Juul Labs, was developed in 2015 by 2 Stanford University graduates. Their goal was to produce a more satisfying and cigarette-like vaping experience, specifically by increasing the amount of nicotine delivered while maintaining smooth and pleasant inhalation. They created an e-liquid that could be vaporized effectively at lower temperatures.27

While more than 400 brands of vaping devices are currently available in the United States,3 Juul has held the largest market share since 2017,28 an estimated 72.1% as of August 2018.29 The surge in popularity of this particular brand is attributed to its trendy design that is similar in size and appearance to a USB flash drive,29 and its offering of sweet flavors such as “crème brûlée” and “cool mint.”

On April 24, 2018, in view of growing concern about the popularity of Juul products among youth, the FDA requested that the company submit documents regarding its marketing tactics, as well as research on the effects of this marketing on product design and public health impact, and information about adverse experiences and complaints.30 The company was forced to change its marketing to appeal less to youth. Now it offers only 3 flavors: “Virginia tobacco,” “classic tobacco,” and “menthol,” although off-brand pods containing a variety of flavors are still available. And some pods are refillable, so users can essentially vape any substance they want.

Although the Juul device delivers a strong dose of nicotine, it is small and therefore easy to hide from parents and teachers, and widespread use has been reported among youth in middle and high schools. Hoodies, hemp jewelry, and backpacks have been designed to hide the devices and allow for easy, hands-free use. YouTube searches for terms such as “Juul,” “hiding Juul at school,” and “Juul in class,” yield thousands of results.31 A 2017 survey reported that 8% of Americans age 15 to 24 had used Juul in the month prior to the survey.32 “To juul” has become a verb.

Each Juul starter kit contains the rechargeable inhalation device plus 4 flavored pods. In the United States, each Juul pod contains nearly as much nicotine as 1 pack of 20 cigarettes in a concentration of 3% or 5%. (Israel and Europe have forced the company to replace the 5% nicotine pods with 1.7% nicotine pods.33) A starter kit costs $49.99, and additional packs of 4 flavored liquid cartridges or pods cost $15.99.34 Other brands of vape pens cost between $15 and $35, and 10-mL bottles of e-liquid cost approximately $7.

What is ‘dripping’?

Hard-core vapers seeking a more intense experience are taking their vaping devices apart and modifying them for “dripping,” ie, directly dripping vape liquids onto the heated coils for inhalation. In a survey, 1 in 4 high school students using vape devices also used them for dripping, citing desires for a thicker cloud of vapor, more intense flavor, “a stronger throat hit,” curiosity, and other reasons.35 Dripping involves higher temperatures, which leads to higher amounts of nicotine delivered, along with more formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acetone (see below).36

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