Are e-cigarettes really healthy alternative to smoking?

Are e-cigarettes really healthy alternative to smoking?

By Shawn Hendricks
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

E-cigarettes have exploded in popularity since they were introduced to U.S. consumers a little more than a decade ago. The smokeless battery-powered devices that vaporize a liquid mixture containing flavors, chemicals and usually (but not always) nicotine were marketed as an alternative to cigarettes and even as a way to quit the habit.

Instead the devices, also known as vapes or by the common brand name Juul, enticed many, especially teens, with their colorful packaging and “pods” featuring minty flavors and sweet flavors such as glazed donut, peach, honeydew and lemon twist.

Health experts have warned users about the potential dangers of using e-cigarettes, or vaping, since the product’s introduction, but it wasn’t until a rash of vaping-related deaths that many parents and users understood the potential problems of e-cigarette use.

Overall awareness of vaping is low, noted Adrienne Duke, associate professor in the human development and family studies at Auburn University.

Prevention programming

Duke is researching vaping prevention programming for middle school and high school students in Alabama.

Her research also assesses the changes in youth and college-age students’ attitudes and beliefs about vaping, their vaping use and how it impacts health.

“Vaping is relatively new, growing in popularity since 2017,” she wrote on the university’s website. “Parents who don’t smoke typically don’t know what these devices look like. Most parents hear vapor and think of water, not chemical aerosols.”

Some devices, Duke noted, “are designed to be easily hidden and mimic the look of other devices, like flash drives, watches or droppers.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) reports on its website that flavored products, especially brands like Juul, have driven “the skyrocketing youth e-cigarette epidemic, which is addicting a new generation of kids and threatening the decades-long progress the nation has made in reducing youth tobacco use.”

Importance of education

And Juul is just one of around 460 different brands, noted Duke, pointing to the importance of education in understanding the risks associated with vaping.

Many adults and youth don’t understand “what they are inhaling and how e-cigs work,” she wrote. A majority of students responded in a survey that they believe electronic nicotine delivery devices are less harmful than cigarettes, she said.

“So there is a misunderstanding around these devices,” she wrote. “It’s also the same for the general public.”

And though smokers have been warned for decades about the dangers of nicotine, “youth often don’t understand what nicotine can do to the body and brain,” Duke said.

“I really think if youth understood better that they are breathing in an aerosol of nicotine, ultra-fine particles, volatile organic compounds and other toxins, they would be less likely to say that it’s harmless,” she wrote.

Despite previous laws restricting purchase of e-cigarettes to those 18 and older, high school students have been top consumers of the devices. According to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, 5 million middle and high school students report using e-cigarettes, with 1 million teens reporting daily use.

In December the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially raised the age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vaping products, to 21. And in early January, the FDA issued a policy “prioritizing enforcement against flavored e-cigarette products that appeal to kids, including fruit and mint flavors.”

Under this policy, according to ADPH, “companies that do not stop manufacturing, distributing and selling unauthorized flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes (other than tobacco or menthol) within 30 days risk FDA enforcement actions.”

In addition to federal laws regulating e-cigarettes and related products, changes in Alabama’s vaping laws went into effect on Aug. 1, 2019, ADPH reported. Among those changes:

  • The Alcohol Beverage Control Board is responsible for the regulation of e-cigarettes and vape products.
  • Advertising cannot categorize alternative nicotine products as healthy options to replace smoking.
  • Vape shops are required to have a tobacco permit.
  • Opening vape shops within 1,000 feet of a school, church, youth center, day-care center or public library, playground or park is prohibited.

Even with the new restrictions, health experts urge more education on the risks associated with e-cigarettes and other vaping devices.

As of Dec. 10, the ADPH said more than 2,400 cases of vaping-related lung injuries have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In Alabama, the ADPH has reported 13 cases of lung disease associated with e-cigarette product use or vaping, and one resident has died due to this lung disease.

“While education may not completely eliminate use (of e-cigarettes),” Duke said, “it would definitely reduce the number of people smoking and those who try for the first time.”