Vaping's Long-Term Effects: Here's what the experts say

Source: AP
Source: AP

The debate over electronic cigarettes rages on, despite the vaping industry's best efforts to promote its value in decreasing the use of tobacco cigarettes. Proponents of e-cigs argue that the technology is safer than traditional cigarettes and can be used to quit smoking altogether. The scientific community is beginning to see things differently, however. Its consensus: vaping is a scam. 

The myth of e-cigarettes as a safe alternative

"The evidence consistently shows that, while some people successfully quit smoking with e-cigarettes, most people using e-cigarettes have their chances of quitting conventional cigarettes reduced by about 30%," Dr. Stanton Glantz, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco's Center of Tobacco Control Research and Education, told Mic. "The most dangerous thing about e-cigarettes is that they keep people smoking cigarettes."

Dr. Glantz conceded the possibility of e-cigs as a way to transition from tobacco cigarettes, but argued that the bulk of e-cig users are what are referred to as "dual users" — consumers who smoke both e-cigs and traditional cigarettes. 

That notion is backed by a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, in which researchers found that e-cig utilization was highest among current tobacco cigarette smokers at a rate of 11.4%, compared to 3.4% of the total population surveyed, 2% of former smokers and 0.8% of those who never smoked a traditional cigarette. Furthermore, a study in scientific journal Tobacco Control found that 75% of dual use smokers do not even believe vaping will help them quit cigarettes and "reported planning to quit within the next 6 months less often than adults who smoke cigarettes exclusively." A substantial 42.3% said they never plan to quit smoking whatsoever. 

A man exhales from a vape.
Source: 
GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

That continued use means that e-cigarettes will have long-term health effects on users, but it's still too early to tell exactly what they will be (the first e-cigarette was invented in 2003). Dr. Glantz suggests another 5-10 years are required to conduct definitive research, but his research has led him to develop an understanding of the short-term epidemiological impact, and how it relates to potential long-term risks.

Vaping's damaging effect on the cardiovascular system

"My current thinking is that e-cigarettes are going to cause less damage than conventional cigarettes in terms of cancer, but they're probably just as dangerous – if not more – when it comes to heart disease and non-cancer lung disease and asthma," Glantz said. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year — that equates to one in every four deaths. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The spreading popularity of e-cigarettes are likely to increase those numbers.

"One of the main things about smoking that causes heart disease is the ultrafine particles that are delivered through the smoke, which trigger inflammatory processes and damage the cardiovascular system," Glantz said. "E-cigarettes deliver as much or more ultrafine particles as the ones found in cigarettes. That's something you can't get rid of because of the way cigarettes work — you generate an aerosol of ultrafine particles that carry the nicotine down into your lungs where it's absorbed. You do that by burning the tobacco.

"The way e-cigarettes work is by heating up a liquid solution -- propylene, glycol, glycerol, nicotine and flavorants – and that generates the ultrafine particles that go into your lungs," Glantz continued. "The e-cigarettes that work the best in terms of delivering nicotine generate more and smaller particles than a conventional cigarette, and the smaller these particles are, the more dangerous they are. They have immediate effects on your blood and blood vessels, which we have already been able to measure and quantify."

"The similarities between e-cigarettes and conventional cigarettes in terms of vascular effects are extremely troubling," Glantz said, bluntly, as he concluded his explanation. 

Fluid used for vaping
Source: 
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Vaping's influence on teenage smoking

Perhaps most troubling aspect is the e-cigarette industry's hold on adolescents. A July 2016 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics examined prevalence rates in Southern California and concluded that "the high prevalence of combined e-cigarette or cigarette use in 2014, compared with historical Southern California smoking prevalence, suggests that e-cigarettes are not merely substituting for cigarettes and indicates that e-cigarette use is occurring in adolescents who would not otherwise have used tobacco products." 

Dr. Glantz partially attributes this phenomenon to marketing techniques utilized by the vaping industry, as well as a plethora of enticing "flavors" which attract younger users. This is highly irresponsible because, even if these teenagers aren't converting to tobacco cigarettes, "Nicotine is still really bad for the developing brain," according to Glantz.

Between early use among adolescents and adults' insistence on dual use smoking, e-cigarettes are bound to have long-term effects — both physiologically and culturally. What exactly they will be cannot yet be definitively quantified, but one thing's for sure: they won't be good. 

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Aric Suber-Jenkins

Aric is a writer covering technology. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Maxim and Brooklyn Magazine. He is based in New York and can be reached at aric@mic.com.

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