Vaping and health: From cancer to weight gain, all your major vape questions, answered

Vaping and health: From cancer to weight gain, all your major vape questions, answered
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

We get it, you vape. And if you don't, maybe you're curious: What is vaping? Is vaping bad for you? Will vaping give you popcorn lung, or cancer? Could vaping help you quit smoking? Will it keep you awake? Make your teeth yellow? Is vaping illegal? Is vaping just for men, or can women get into it

And if you do buy a vape, you probably have questions about that too. What's the best vape to get? How about the best cheap vape? Can vaping get you high? If you vape weed, will it smell? What's that one funny vaping meme? And so on. 

It's OK! We've all asked these questions. Vaping is new, exciting and more popular than ever with young people. Plus, there's a thriving culture surrounding it and cool new technology to check out — gadgets as sleek and well-designed as an iPhone. We're here to answer your questions, from the most basic to the most complex. That's why we put together this basic guide to vaping, health and the law. Vaping is the future, so we should all get informed.

What is vaping?

Vaping is the act of inhaling liquid that's heated into vapor. That's why most e-cigarettes come with e-juice that usually consists of a vegetable glycerin base, propylene glycol and small amounts of nicotine

Can you vape weed, and will it get you high?

Yes, you can vape weed. Vaping weed involves heating actual marijuana until its THC and cannabidiol are released as an aerosol, BuzzFeed explains. And yes, it'll get you high. It's just less harsh on the lungs.


Is vaping illegal? Here are the current FDA vaping regulations.

Story originally published in October.

Is new vaping regulation really going to affect its legality? Or is it all just smoke and mirrors? 

Well, let's break it down: In May, the Food and Drug Administration successfully regulated vaporizers, classifying them as tobacco products. It went into effect Aug. 8. 

This means vaporizers are now subject to the regulations of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which "gives FDA authority to regulate the manufacture, distribution and marketing of tobacco products."

Essentially, this will make it just as hard for people to get e-cigarettes as it will for them to get old-fashioned cigarettes. If you are, or look, under 18 years old, it'll make purchasing them more difficult, because e-cigs are now illegal for minors. However, if you are neither of those, the new regulations shouldn't impact you much. 

This is an important development, Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, explained: Between 2011 and 2015, the use of e-cigarettes among high schoolers increased by 900%. Something needed to be done to inhibit young people's access to these products, which have been linked to a number of health risks — and that's what this new regulation seeks to do. 

American Vaping Association president Gregory Conley vehemently opposes the new laws, saying on Aug. 5 they signal "the beginning of a two-year countdown to FDA prohibition of 99.9%+ of vapor products."

New regulations will, in fact, be rolled out between 2016 and 2019. While there are increasing restrictions — particularly on manufacturers and distributors — the regulations do not include a near-total prohibition of vaporizers. 

For example, by 2018, the packaging and advertisements of vaporizers must include the following label: "WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical."

Ultimately, the FDA considers vaping a public health issue because, while many scientists regard them as less harmful than real cigarettes, they're still bad for you. Further, other scientists have even argued "e-cigarette vapor damages DNA in ways that could lead to cancer" — and that doesn't sound too good. 

A man vaping
Source: 
Ben Margot/AP

Is vaping bad for you? Here are some of the negative health effects of smoking from an e-cigarette or vape

Story originally published in March.

As tech advancements have brought down the prices for many popular vaporizers, smokers are turning to e-cigarettes and other vapes as their primary smoking implements instead of the traditional tools. Though vaporizers were once believed to be the future of smoking, a growing pool of research is linking the growing fad to a number of alarming health issues, including mental health issues and lung and heart disease. 

What may come as a shock to some, is the fact that e-cigarettes aren't regulated whatsoever by the Food and Drug Administration. Even though the American Lung Association has expressed its concerns over potential public health consequences, the vape industry has been granted absolute freedom in packaging as many chemicals as it pleases into its devices' cartridges. And nobody has any idea what they're smoking every time they power up to light up.

For starters, research from the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine indicates vaporizing might suppress immune genes, effectively causing smokers greater complications in the body's immune genes than cigarette smoke.

"E-cig users showed the same changes in immune genes as cigarette smokers. However, e-cig users also demonstrated suppression of several additional immune genes, suggesting even broader suppressive effects on respiratory mucosal immune responses as compared to cigarette smokers," the study, presented at the 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington, D.C., noted

"The main component of e-cigarettes is the e-liquid contained in cartridges. To create an e-liquid, nicotine is extracted from tobacco and mixed with a base (usually propylene glycol), and may also include flavorings, colorings and other chemicals," the American Lung Association reported. "Because there is no government oversight of these products, nearly 500 brands and 7,700 flavors of e-cigarettes are on the market, all without an FDA evaluation determining what's in them. So there is no way for anyone — health care professionals or consumers — to know what chemicals are contained in e-liquids, or how e-cigarette use might affect health, whether in the short term or in the long run."

According to Wired, new research correlates smoking from vapes to a plethora of health issues, including "asthma, lung inflammation, MRSA infection risk and exposure to harmful chemicals." However, thanks to extensive backlash from the American Vaping Association, many users are under the assumption there isn't any scientific evidence to suggest vaping could pose risks.

There is. Although vaporizing might eventually prove to be less carcinogenic than regular cigarettes, that certainly doesn't equate to perfect health. 

"We already know you're breathing in a lot of toxic chemicals, which is bad," Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco, told Wired. "You're breathing in a lot of toxic particles, which is bad. You're taking in nicotine, which is bad. A cigarette is by far and away the most dangerous consumer product ever invented. So to say it's not as bad as a cigarette is not saying very much."

Vaping in China
Source: 
STR/Getty Images

Will vaping give you popcorn lung? Here's the truth.

Story originally published in December.

New research from a Harvard University team that examined 51 various electronic cigarettes and e-liquids — the juices used in vaping — found that 75% of the juices contained dangerous flavoring chemicals that historically have been tied to a lung disease called "popcorn lung."

Headlines like "Those cool e-cigs you're vaping will prob give you lung disease" would have you believe it's the vaping itself that's causing the disease, confirming the righteous boast that the proud vapers who think they're evading carcinogens by looking for a nicotine alternative are actually harming themselves all along. Other headlines, like "Chemicals in flavored e-cigarettes tied to 'popcorn lung' disease," imply that the flavorings have just been linked to a lung disease, as if people who vape had contracted popcorn lung.

Don't be misled. That's not what the study found. 

The study identified the presence of a nefarious ingredient — an artificial flavoring called diacetyl — in far more juices than the vaping community expected. What's happening here is that a large number of actors in a neglected and unregulated industry are incidentally using an optional ingredient that the vaping industry at large is against using in the first place.

Popcorn lung: In May 2000, a Missouri doctor contacted the state's Department of Health and Senior Services to report that eight of his patients who had formerly worked at a microwavable popcorn factory had an obstructive respiratory disease that looked like bronchiolitis obliterans. Half of them were on the list for lung transplants. After years of investigation, the CDC traced this ailment to diacetyl.

Diacetyl is a yellow-green flavoring chemical that has an intensely buttery flavor. It's one of the most prevalent ingredients in popcorn-flavoring compounds. Diacetyl is classified as "generally regarded as safe" by the FDA, the same classification given to caffeine and many spices. That is, it's safe to ingest — but inhaling it is a whole other story. 

Workers who had been close to vats that were giving off diacetyl vapor were found to have severely increased risk for lung disease, and diacetyl-induced bronchiolitis obliterans was henceforth referred to as "popcorn lung."

The vaping industry has known about the use of diacetyl as an e-liquid flavoring chemical for years, and it has been waging an internal war to identify juices that contain this chemical. Vendors will bluster about how their liquids don't contain traces of harmful flavorings, but because it's such an early, unregulated and under-examined industry, there's too much opacity to know when in the process of making an e-liquid — from the wholesaling of chemical compounds to the mixing of the juice — diacetyl makes its way into the product. For customers, the labels on e-liquids simply say "Natural and Artificial Flavors."

Does this mean vaping is bad for you? Not exactly. But the study shows some juices are likely bad for you because of a certain ingredient. Plenty of vape juices are made without diacetyl. It's only one of many flavorings, and though the Harvard study found that its presence is common, it's not a necessary flavor additive. 

A simple solution would be moderate, common-sense legislation to prevent the inclusion of diacetyl and similarly harmful chemicals from vape juices. Another alternative is more robust, impartial vaping research and a standardized way to test for a select group of bad chemical agents, which vaping companies like Five Pawns have been calling for while simply paying for studies on their own products.

As for the actual act of vaping, the research world is a convoluted mess of bad methodology and influence from big tobacco. While the jury is out on vaping as an entirely safe activity, the position of groups like the American Heart Association is that regardless of how bad it might be, vaping is no where near as harmful as cigarettes, and data from the CDC suggests that the availability of e-cigarettes makes people more likely to ease off smoking. The response from legislators has been either nonexistent or, in the case of bans and taxes, overly severe.

Until the vaping industry has more research and transparency, industry advocates, activists and bloggers are trying to remind everyone that even with the presence of some harmful chemicals, vaping is possibly much healthier for you than cigarettes — which also, by the way, can include diacetyl.

Electronic cigarette
Source: 
Ed Andrieski/AP

Vaping vs. smoking cigarettes: Is one safer or more dangerous than the other?

Story originally published in August.

Is vaping safer than smoking tobacco cigarettes? The answer is complicated.

While some e-cigarettes contain nicotine and other potentially harmful chemicals, most scientists agree that vaping is less dangerous than traditional cigarettes.

In reference to a report from the Royal College of Physicians published in April, professor John Britton and his colleagues wrote that e-cigarettes and other non-tobacco nicotine products "offer the potential to radically reduce harm from smoking in our society."

"This is an opportunity that should be managed, and taken," the RCP researchers concluded.

The National Health Service of England is in agreement, citing the lack of toxic smoke in e-cigs. "As there is no burning involved [with e-cigarettes], there is no smoke," the NHS' webpage for going smoke-free, states. "Unlike cigarettes, e-cigarettes do not produce tar and carbon monoxide. The vapor has been found to contain some toxicants also found in cigarette smoke, but at much lower levels," the summary continued.

Vaping is not without risks. Even though most experts agree that e-cigs are less dangerous than smoking, there are still proven risks to vaping.

In addition to nicotine, formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is present in vaping fluid. Another chemical, diacetyl — a flavoring agent linked to lung disease — has been traced as well.

In an experiment conducted at the University of Southern California, researchers found that vapor extracted from e-cigarettes caused exposed human cells to die far quicker than their untreated counterparts, the Telegraph reported.

"Our study strongly suggests that electronic cigarettes are not as safe as their marketing makes them appear to the public," University of California, San Diego, professor Jessica Wang-Rodriguez said to the Telegraph.

But if used responsibly with a goal of eventually quitting smoking altogether, many scientists argue that vaping can have long-term benefits to world health.

"We must be careful not to restrict smokers' access to e-cigarettes, or overstate the potential harm of their use, if this will put people off making the transition from smoking to vaping," University of Bristol professor Marcus Munafo wrote for the Conversation.

"To do so would deny us one of the greatest public-health-improving opportunities of the last 50 years."

A man smoking an e-cig
Source: 
Neil P. Mockford/Getty Images

Does vaping cause cancer? Some vapes are more dangerous than others, study suggests

Story originally published in July.

Vaping has helped millions of people quit smoking, according to one study — but if you're going to make the transition from deadly tobacco to an e-cigarette, it's worth knowing that some devices could be more toxic than others.

According to a study published in Environmental Science and Technology in July, vapes with two coils are less toxic than vapes with one coil.

"Emission rates ranged from tens to thousands of nanograms of toxicants per milligram of e-liquid vaporized, and they were significantly higher for a single-coil vs. a double-coil vaporizer," the study said.

The culprit is heat. The coil is the part of the device that's heated to vaporize the e-liquid as it passes through. With a dual-coil configuration, the heat is evenly distributed between the two coils, which "produces stronger, warmer and higher volumes of vapor production" and "can deliver the same amount of vapor in less time than a single coil," according to Vaporfi. And, according to the study, this even heat distribution may lead to a lower emission of toxic chemicals.  

"Not all devices are the same," Hugo Destaillats, study co-author and staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Motherboard. "With two coils, the same voltage gets distributed evenly between the coils. Therefore, the amount of heating of each of them is lower."

previous study has shown some e-liquids contain an ingredient that's been linked to lung disease. This study identified 31 toxic compounds emitted by vaporizers, though dangers like these are still less deadly than the threat of tobacco, the American Heart Association noted in 2014, as reported by Motherboard at the time. 

But the study does show that for the millions of people turning to e-cigs as a less toxic habit, a double-coil vape may be a healthier choice than single-coil. 

"This is yet another junk study, accompanied by a fear mongering press release, funded by vaping prohibitionists," Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said in an email, noting the funders of the study recently hosted an anti-vaping conference. What's more, the study was done mechanically — no human subjects inhaled as part of it.

It's worth taking the study with a grain of salt — but it still reveals a correlation between harmful toxins emitted and the temperature at which e-liquids are burned. And that's no hot air.

A man vaping
Source: 
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Vaping and health: Can vaping help you quit smoking — without gaining weight?

Probably. It's helped millions of people quit, according to one study.

A study published in the journal Addiction looked at e-cigarette usage among over 27,000 people in 28 European countries. The study found that "an estimated 6.1 and 9.2 million EU citizens had quit and reduced smoking with the use of e-cigarettes respectively."

It can also help you quit smoking without gaining weight, according to another study.

Nicotine's effect on the brain and metabolism can reduce weight gain, and the habit of smoking can act as a behavioral alternative to eating. The authors of the study note that the expectation of gaining weight after quitting smoking dissuades many from kicking the habit. 

But be warned: One recent study showed vaping can affect immune genes.

Story originally published in February.

Research conducted by Ilona Jaspers, the deputy director of the UNC Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology, who presented at the conference, found that while cigarettes have been shown to suppress some immune genes, vaping affects significantly more of those immune genes.

"E-cig users showed the same changes in immune genes as cigarette smokers," Jaspers' research found. "However, e-cig users also demonstrated suppression of several additional immune genes, suggesting even broader suppressive effects on respiratory mucosal immune responses as compared to cigarette smokers."

"The gene expression changes we're seeing are consistent with a modified immune response," Jaspers told ArsTechnica, but added that "we don't know" whether the changes caused by e-cigs are putting users at greater risk of disease and infection.

This isn't the first bit of sobering news for people who champion vaping as a safe alternative to cigarettes. Back in June, a study found that vaping liquids expose lung cells to carcinogens and may cause lung inflammation. 

So what does it all mean? E-cigs are still a relatively new product and their long-term effects aren't yet clear — so anyone who says they understand everything that vaping does to your body might be full of hot air.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

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