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Vaping and Your Health: What We Know Now

By Kate Hobbs Knutson, MD, MPH | March 11, 2020 | Health Conditions, Healthy Lifestyle

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Vaping and e-cigarettes were originally supposed to be a lifeline for adult smokers: a safer alternative that might even help them quit tobacco smoking. As it turns out, this promise has fallen far short.

Vaping has now been tied to many serious health effects, including an outbreak of lung diseases that began in the fall of 2019. Although federal authorities are closer to solving the mystery behind these illnesses, vaping remains dangerous, especially for adolescents, who continue to use e-cigarettes at an alarming rate.

At the end of January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have linked vaping to 60 deaths in 27 states and Washington DC. The agency has also reported more than 2,600 hospitalizations as a result of e-cigarette or vaping, product use-associated lung injury, also known as EVALI.

Why has vaping led to this outbreak?

It appears that some liquids that people heat inside their vaping machines and then inhale as a vapor contain toxic substances that can damage the lungs. For example, additives such as Vitamin E acetate have been connected to EVALI. Additives may be used as thickening agents in e-cigarettes and other vaping products.

The CDC investigation is ongoing, and there may be additional chemicals that are found to be harmful. In the meantime, the CDC recommends that:

  • People should not use THC-containing e-cigarette, or vaping, products, particularly from informal sources like friends or bought “on the street.”
  • Vitamin E acetate should not be added to any e-cigarette, or vaping, products.
  • Adults using e-cigarettes or vaping products as an alternative to cigarettes should not go back to smoking. They may use other proven methods to stop smoking including FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapies and other medications prescribed by a physician.
  • Teens, young adults, or women who are pregnant should never use an e-cigarette or vaping products.

How else does vaping impact health?

Not everyone who vapes will get an EVALI. Nevertheless, vaping can cause a range of dangerous health effects. The cartridges used in e-cigarettes and the liquids used to refill the tanks of larger vapes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and particularly harmful to adolescents.

According to the CDC, nicotine can hurt teens’ brain development, affecting attention, learning, mood and impulse control. And because e-cigarettes have only been around for a short time, there is a lot we don’t know about the long-term health effects.

E-cigarettes also pose risks for adults. Nicotine can raise blood pressure, increasing a person’s risk for heart disease or stroke.

While there was some hope that e-cigarettes could help a person quit tobacco smoking, this no longer appears to be true. E-cigarettes are not currently approved by the FDA as a quit smoking aid. In fact, some e-cigarettes contain more nicotine than regular cigarettes, making them more addictive. Vaping can even lead some people, including teens, to use tobacco products in the future, reports the CDC.

Vaping and teens: a dangerous combination

While only eight percent of Americans overall say they have vaped within the past week, according to a July 2019 Gallup poll, this rate is much higher for teens. The 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey by the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC reports that 27.5 percent of high schoolers reported using an e-cigarette in the previous 30 days, up from 20.8 percent just the previous year. Today, almost one million youth say they use a vaping product every day.

This rise in teen vaping – combined with the outbreak of lung diseases – has led to several restrictions on the availability of e-cigarettes. The federal government has banned the sale of e-cigarettes (and regular cigarettes) to people under age 21. Federal officials also plan to stop the sale of popular mint- and fruit-flavored e-cigarette cartridges and liquid nicotine. This type of liquid used to refill vaping tanks was the source of most EVALI cases.

Parents also have an important role to play in curbing this harmful behavior. To help prevent or stop the use of e-cigarettes, parents can talk to teens about the dangers of vaping and set a good example by being tobacco-free themselves. This tip sheet from the U.S. Surgeon General can help parents start the conversation.

Parents can also engage their children’s doctors as an ally in the fight against vaping. If you think your teen may be vaping or is thinking about doing so, bring up this topic at your child’s next check-up.

There are also other resources for teens – and adults – to help them quit:

This is Quitting

This free mobile program from the Truth Initiative helps teens and young adults quit juuling, a form of vaping that uses popular Juul products. Simply text “DITCHJUUL” to 887-09 to get started.  Learn more.

QuitlineNC

Confidential counseling and Quit Coaches are ready to support the journey to a tobacco-free life. There is also a special five-call program for teens who are addicted to tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. This program is available state-wide regardless of health insurance status. Call 1-844-8NCQUIT or 1-844-862-7848. Learn more.

Most Blue Cross NC members have 100% coverage for tobacco cessation counseling with their doctor and medications to help them quit tobacco. Check your policy at bcbsnc.com for more details.