It is not an overstatement to say that vaping has taken the world by storm. Hailed in some circles as a revolutionary alternative to traditional tobacco smoking and promising fewer health risks, the smoke-free vaping experience has gained rapid popularity, especially among the younger generations. Vaping advocates and those within the industry often claim that vapes are designed to help people stop smoking, but is this a true reflection of their purpose? And what are the hidden dangers of vaping that may hide behind the vibrant flavours, sleek designs and clever marketing?
What is vaping?
Vaping involves inhaling aerosol produced by heating a liquid, commonly referred to as e-liquid or vape juice, in electronic devices like e-cigarettes or vaporisers. This liquid usually contains nicotine, flavourings and other additives. The device heats the liquid, creating vapour that is then inhaled, mimicking the act of smoking without the combustion and tobacco-related toxins.
Unmasking the “safer claims” of vaping vs smoking
The notion that vaping is a far safer alternative to smoking is being increasingly debunked by cases of severe lung injuries associated with its use. Vaping side effects and lung injuries have been documented worldwide, causing symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain. In extreme cases, there have even been patients who required hospitalisation and intensive medical intervention. Between 2020 and 2023, the NHS recorded 233 hospital admissions where vaping was the primary cause and 941 cases where it was either the primary or secondary cause.
Chemicals within the clouds
Vaping liquids contain a cocktail of chemicals that users inhale directly into their lungs. Propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, the main ingredients, create the vapour, but it’s the potential additives that raise the primary health concerns:
Most e-liquids contain nicotine, the addictive substance at the core of smoking, but this is often at startlingly high concentrations. For example, one study exploring nicotine levels found that one Juul 200-puff vape contained about the same amount of nicotine as twenty cigarettes.
Other harmful ingredients potentially found in vapes, particularly illegal ones bought outside of licensed purveyors, include:
Pulegone, banned by the FDA from being added to food, is the flavouring in some mint and menthol cigarettes and e-cigarettes. However, Pulegone is a known carcinogen, with one study finding that some vapes have far higher levels of Pulegone than menthol cigarettes.
Diacetyl, Acetoin, Pentanedione
Diacetyl, linked to “popcorn lung,” a common term for bronchiolitis obliterans, inflamed airways, causing breathing issues when inhaled. It is banned in e-liquids in Europe but can still be found elsewhere and in illegal vapes in the UK. Acetoin is less toxic but transforms into diacetyl over time, while acetyl propionyl, also called pentanedione, leads to respiratory inflammation and lung damage.
Vape juice releases heavy metal particles into the aerosol when heated with metal components. More potent devices produce higher concentrations of these byproducts, which can cause major lung damage.
Vitamin E acetate
Vitamin E acetate, used illicitly to mix THC in vape juice, is also heavily linked to e-cigarette vaping-associated lung injuries (EVALI) and other health risks.
Diethylene glycol is used in various products, including antifreeze, but was found in some e-cigarettes in 2009, posing toxic risks despite its sweet taste.
The heating process can also transform many of these chemicals into volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde-releasing agents, which pose health risks.
The allure of flavours and designs
One of the most concerning aspects of vaping is how e-cigarettes are packaged and presented with colourful designs and a vast array of flavours. This starkly contrasts legal requirements for cigarette packaging, which, depending on the country, have to feature severe health warnings, graphic images of smoking-related illnesses or, in some cases, completely blank packaging.
One of the major concerns of vape packaging, flavours and overall marketing is the appeal to children and adolescents. This is also an issue with the design of the vapes, ranging from sleek USB-resembling Juul vapes to devices resembling toys with anime or cartoon graphics and bright colours.
Cigarette companies knew of the benefits of marketing to children decades ago with toy cigarettes and candy cigarettes embedding their messaging deep inside happy childhood memories.
These concerns seem to be well-founded as it has been found that:
- 7.6% of British children vape compared to 3.6% who smoke cigarettes.
- 57% of 11-17 year olds vape compared to 42% of former adult smokers and 2.3% of adult never smokers.
The shackles of addiction
Another hidden danger of vaping is its potential to ensnare users in a web of addiction. The high nicotine content in many vaping products makes them highly addictive, sometimes even more so than traditional cigarettes. Adolescents, with their developing brains, are particularly vulnerable to nicotine’s grasp, while for former smokers, what was meant to be an escape from smoking becomes a new, insidious habit that’s hard to kick.
The big question is whether vaping will create a new generation of nicotine addicts who would never have started smoking in the first place. Smoking rates have dropped significantly among young people over the past few decades, but with a new product in vaping sold to them as being “safe”, there could be a major global health risk on the horizon.
How long does it take your lungs to heal from vaping?
The exact timeline for lung healing from vaping varies depending on factors like the duration and intensity of vaping and individual health conditions. Generally, improvements in lung function can begin within weeks to months after quitting vaping. However, it might take several months to years for more significant healing and recovery, especially if there has been substantial damage.
The main reason for the uncertainty about the scale of the health risks is that vaping is a relatively recent phenomenon. This means that while there have been studies on the potential short-term dangers, the long-term effects of vaping are still largely unknown.
While vaping is often promoted as a safer alternative to smoking, it’s crucial to remember that many of smoking’s detrimental effects took years to become apparent. Looking back, it’s astonishing that people in the past were unaware of the harm caused by tobacco. Yet, history might be repeating itself.
Seeking an exit: Alternatives to vaping
The abundance of vaping alternatives can obscure potentially more effective methods for those seeking to quit smoking. Nicotine replacement therapies, prescription medications, hypnotism, behavioural counselling, self-help books, and support groups have all demonstrated success in helping smokers quit.
These approaches, unlike vaping, don’t involve inhaling harmful chemicals or fostering new dependencies. The NHS even has an app that can help you stop smoking, and its website lists all the benefits you can experience once you do. These include:
Smoking is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the UK and worldwide, so finding a solution that helps you to quit is crucial. If that is vaping, just be aware of the potential harm, look for low-nicotine vapes without the high-risk chemicals explained above, and only buy your vaping products from a licensed purveyor.
While the long-term health implications of vaping remain an enigma, there is already enough evidence to show that it is far from a healthy habit. The uptake of vaping among young people is a major cause for concern as the widespread availability of vaping products, which are unlicensed and contain multiple harmful chemicals. To prevent a repeat of the tobacco health crisis of the 20th century, governments, health bodies, and the scientific world must work together to fully understand the dangers, put protective policies in place and educate the public.
ASH. “Use of e-cigarettes (vapes) among young people in Great Britain.” Action on Smoking and Health, 2023, https://ash.org.uk/uploads/Use-of-vapes-among-young-people-GB-2023.pdf?v=1686042690. Accessed 25 August 2023.
NHS England. “Hospital admissions for vaping related disorders.” NHS Digital, 14 June 2023, https://digital.nhs.uk/supplementary-information/2023/hospital-admissions-for-vaping-related-disorders. Accessed 25 August 2023.
Prochaska, Judith J., et al. “Nicotine delivery and cigarette equivalents from vaping a JUULpod.” PubMed, 24 March 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33762429/. Accessed 25 August 2023.
SMOKO. “Harmful Chemicals You Should Avoid In E-liquids.” SMOKO E Cigarettes, 9 March 2022, https://smoko.com/blogs/news/harmful-chemicals-you-should-avoid-in-e-liquids. Accessed 25 August 2023.