Vaping: Are Its “Benefits” a Lot of Hot Air?

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I was sitting in a restaurant bar a few days ago when a huge puff of cherry-scented smoke engulfed the area. As a former firefighter, I immediately looked around to find the source. You guessed it: a group of young adults were “vaping” nearby. This method of smoking is accomplished with an electronic “cigarette.” A sensor inside the e-cigarette detects airflow and initiates a heating element that vaporizes a liquid solution containing propylene glycol (organic compound with the chemical formula C₃H₈O₂), the flavoring of choice, and nicotine.1

I knew of this fad but didn’t give it much thought until recently, when I realized how pervasive it has become. Frankly, I have always thought, At least they are not smoking cigarettes and inhaling all that benzene, carbon dioxide, and formaldehyde.

We all know smoking cessation is valuable to the health of the population, but what do we know about the effects of vaping? For one thing, use of e-cigarettes (vapes) has increased considerably since they were first introduced (0.3% to 6.8% between 2007 and 2010).This is cause for concern, because while some research on e-cigarettes has emerged since their appearance, there are few definitive answers regarding their effect on human health.2

We also know that nicotine is addictive and toxic (in high doses), but we do not know the effects of propylene glycol, although it is generally recognized as “safe.” Symptoms that may occur as a result of vaporized propylene glycol inhalation include throat and ocular irritation, cough, mild airway obstruction, throat and vocal cord inflammation, headache, and dizziness. In spite of this, since the manufacturers of e-cigarettes have not made any therapeutic claims about their products, the FDA initially did not regulate them.

With e-cigarettes appearing in vaping shops, gas stations, and convenience stores—alongside advertising copy that claims vaping can help smokers curtail their habit by inhaling “harmless water vapor”—what should we tell our patients? These advertisements tout vaping as the “lesser of two evils” when compared to cigarettes. How can you knock that logic when we know cigarette smoking causes one in five deaths in the US each year and is a leading risk factor for COPD?3

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