Vaping: the good, the bad and the ugly

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Rebecca Newlands
Writer

After vaping has been linked to a mystery illness causing five deaths and 450 illnesses, is it really such a safe alternative after all?

Far fewer people are smoking cigarettes today, partly in thanks to increasing awareness of the health risks and a range of restrictive measures. But for those who do smoke, a medically approved alternative has been offered as a transitional method to quitting: electronic cigarettes, the use of which is known as vaping. Free from tar and carbon monoxide, e-cigarettes are considered a far healthier alternative, while still giving smokers the satisfaction they crave from a regular cigarette. They are easier on your wallet too, with a range of rechargeable and refillable options. Vapes have been hailed as a fantastic replacement, as well as a way to wean off smoking altogether, with half of the 2.9 million Brits who use them quitting smoking according to the NHS.

But the rapid introduction of vaping into our lives seems to have had other effects, with non-smokers who have never touched a cigarette actually starting to vape regularly, or at least trying it out. In fact, a study from the University of Michigan in 2014 stated that for the first time, the number of vapers has overtaken the number of regular smokers. As of 2018, the number of vapers is estimated at around 41 million, and on the rise. Statistics seem to show that vaping has not only emerged as a popular replacement for smoking and a way of quitting, but as a trendy new habit to start.

What is concerning about this growing popularity of vaping, even among non-smokers, is the fact that, despite approval by medical experts, it might not be such a healthy alternative. The news is currently awash with stories of vaping-related illnesses and even deaths, the latest being a 50-year-old woman from Kansas, USA. What is alarming is the rate at which her health deteriorated: within one week of using e-cigarettes, having never smoked anything before, she developed a full-blown acute respiratory syndrome. Other patients using e-cigarettes have complained to doctors about coughing fits, breathlessness, fatigue, and chest pains. Worryingly little research has been done on the exact causes of these symptoms, but a common ingredient of vapes, diacetyl, is likely the main suspect. It is a liquid chemical and is actually used on cinema popcorn and gives some e-cigarettes their “buttery” taste. However, while it is perfectly safe to consume this in popcorn, it is dangerous when inhaled and causes lung problems, which gives name to the condition known as “popcorn lung”.

Health concerns aside, the growing popularity of vaping has had a considerable social effect, particularly among young people and students. As a student, I see so many people my age using vapes all around campus, as they can subtly puff on one without sticking to a smoking area and blowing too much of their tight student budget. The expansion of e-cigarette flavours is quite telling, with flavours like bubble-gum, chocolate, cherry pie and cheesecake; they seem to be deliberately aimed at younger crowds who may be put off by the strong stench and tarry taste of regular cigarettes. It is almost like these childish flavours are giving them the opportunity to start vaping, which is a worrying objective to work from. Vapes are dominating the social media stratosphere too, with YouTube channels dedicated to showing off vaping smoke tricks like blowing the “O” shape, and influential young celebrities, like model, Bella Hadid, regularly documenting her vaping on Instagram. Not only has vaping so considerably expanded to suit a younger demographic, it is being advertised by people who may have more of an impact on students and young people than they realise.

And it is not as if these e-cigarettes in all their features and flavours are so difficult to get your hands on. In fact, it’s far easier to buy vape products than regular cigarettes. Vape stores seem to have multiplied overnight, with branches popping up everywhere for easy access to these products. With a simple Google search – and I really mean as simple as typing “vaping” into the search engine – my results page racked up 20 stores in my area specifically selling vape and e-cigarette products. The next result below was a link to an NHS information page on the use of vapes to wean off smoking. So even those with perhaps little to no knowledge of what vaping is and how it affects your body are met with an abundance of places to source a potentially dangerous new habit, juxtaposed with official health guidelines actually still recommending it, despite these reports of illnesses and deaths.

Vaping has quickly become an overnight sensation, not only as an alternative to smoking but as something to do even if you don’t smoke. What is alarming is not only the lack of emphasis by health officials that it still carries considerable risks, but the overt advertisement of appealing flavours so that a younger demographic can get on board with this trend. Despite it not being as bad as smoking, we are still very much in the dark in terms of what it is really doing to our bodies.