Everything you need to know about vaping and the latest controversy over e-cigarette deaths

It's billed as a smoking cessation medication or a 'healthier' alternative to traditional dried tobacco smoking, but after reports of a cluster of lung diseases associated with electronic cigarette use, many have started questioning its long-term safety. Amanda Cassidy reports. 


You probably know someone who vapes. You might vape yourself. But do you know exactly what it is doing to your lungs? Neither do researchers - at least not over the long-term.

But it is better than smoking, right? Not necessarily.

Amid the hysteria about vaping, one thing has come to light - the fact that nobody is sure exactly how inhaling nicotine through an aerosol impacts health.

In recent weeks over 200 people have been admitted to hospital for pneumonia-like symptoms including shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, fatigue, vomiting and fevers. It is suspected that vaping is responsible for the illness. Two people have died, a person in Illinois who was identified as being between 17 and 38 years old, and another from Oregon who had been using a vaping device  with cannabis purchased from a dispensary.

In cases in New York, researcher also found that Vitamin E was in black market vape oils tied to illnesses in the state. The Centre for Disease control has now opened an investigation into the number of severe lung diseases potentially associated with vaping.

In context, comparing this to the number of regular smoking-related deaths, it is easy to dismiss the numbers involved as minuscule, but the red flag here is the unknown.

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Simah Herman is an 18 year old from California, she uploaded images of herself unconscious in hospital after her lungs failed. 'This is all because of vaping,'"she wrote in her post which was shared hundreds of thousands of times. 'Vaping is advertised as “a healthier alternative to smoking” which is false. Whether it’s nicotine or weed vaping can be fatal. I was lucky. The doctors didn’t think I was going to make it but with prayers from family and friends I pulled through after almost a week on a ventilator."

Epidemic

This week, also in the US, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that the state will ban the sale of flavoured e-cigarettes in an attempt to curb youth vaping. It's after a prominent US surgeon general called it an 'epidemic'.

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"My number one priority is keeping our kids safe and protecting the health of the people of Michigan," said Whitmer. "And right now, companies selling vaping products are using candy flavors to hook children on nicotine and misleading claims to promote the belief that these products are safe. That ends today."

So what exactly is in an e-cigarette?

Electronic cigarettes were invented in 2003. It is a device allows the user to get nicotine through an aerosol rather than combustion products of dried tobacco. Vaping is when the e-cigarette heats up a liquid that usually contains the drug nicotine as well as chemicals that are “generally recognised as safe” when eaten but not when inhaled

These chemicals include propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin that is derived from vegetable oil. That vapor contains all of the chemicals in the liquid and also may contain others produced by the heating process.

Recent studies have shown a string of potential health risks associated with vaping. Lipoid pneumonia is one such disease, probably caused by inhalation of oil-containing vapor: the body’s immune response to oil in the lungs involves inflammation that can be fatal.  Laura Crotty Alexander, is a pulmonologist who has been studying the effects of e-cigarettes since 2013.

Speaking to the the Huffington Post, she is in no doubt that vape devices are dangerous. "They’re definitely going to cause disease, both in the lungs and throughout the rest of the body,” she said. “We can definitely say now that they are not healthy, they’re not without risk.”

But for some, it is the lesser of two evils.

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Some public health groups even recommends that e-cigarettes can help smokers quit. A study carried out two years ago found that if an e-cigarette is used along with behavioural therapy it may help some smokers quit.

But aren't these devices are sold in places where this type of 'therapy' isn't always readily available? Moreover, they are now, worryingly being marketed at the younger generation. In other words, instead of being a cessation remedy for smoking, could it be a gateway to smoking for those who've never tried any type of smoking before?

"To suggest there is a less-bad way of consuming harmful substances is at best ignorant, and at worst manipulative".

Amelia's 15-year-old daughter started vaping earlier this year. She believes that it is being sold to teens as a more modern and 'cooler' version of smoking and that it is completely safe. "I was so cross with her, and asked her why and she told me it was safe, much safer than actual smoking. She was adamant that there was nothing risky about it. I don't know why it isn't banned completely. But the packaging is bright and youthful, the flavours like bubblegum attractive to kids."

My own eight-year-old daughter asked me what 'My Blu' is the other day. She saw the bright packaging of the newest e-cigarette brand to hit Ireland as we stood waiting for the Luas. She rarely asks me about ads so it was obvious that it was something in the marketing that caught her attention.

Smoking, whichever way you consume it, is a choice. We know puffing on these things isn't wonderful for our health. To suggest there is a less-bad way of consuming harmful substances is at best ignorant, and at worst manipulative. To market them to our children is reckless.

The latest health panic over vaping is a good opportunity to have a wider conversation about what we consider 'healthy' when it comes to smoking. We should be asking ourselves if this is signal that we should be taking steps to stamp it out completely?

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Perhaps instead of applauding an alternative to smoking like vaping, we can work towards some better resources and supports for those who do want to quit smoking for good. And to steer our children away from the message that there is a safe way to smoke.

Image via Unsplash.com 

Read more: How vaping may harm your immune system

Read more: 16 people die every day from smoking in Ireland

Read more: I've finally quit smoking for good after 35 years

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