The Health Risks of Vaping

Since their debut in 2004, electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes have steadily grown in popularity. Approximately 9 million U.S. adults regularly use e-cigarettes, and that includes a growing number of teenagers. In 2015, one in six high school students reported using an e-cigarette in the past month.

E-cigarettes were originally designed as a tool to help smokers quit, similar to nicotine patches. But research demonstrates that using e-cigarettes has become a gateway to smoking, especially for adolescents. As the vaping market has grown and evolved, companies began putting THC, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological and behavioral effects, into vaping products.

These developments have created a huge health risk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control now reports that vaping products containing THC can lead to a deadly lung disease; since August, 40 people have died and more than 2,000 have become ill in an outbreak of such a disease. Patients have reported coughs, shortness of breath and chest pain. Some also develop nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever and chills.

Researchers have analyzed fluid samples from the lungs of 29 of the people who have become ill and identified a common chemical: vitamin E acetate, an additive in some THC-containing products. Many of the people who became ill purchased their e-cigarettes from informal sources, such as friends and acquaintances.

Based on what they have learned to date, the CDC recommends avoiding all e-cigarettes containing THC and avoid buying e-cigarettes from informal sources such as friends or online dealers. The CDC also warns that it is dangerous to modify vaping products.

Beyond the evidence about this recent health crisis, researchers have been tracking the trend of e-cigarettes and have developed a body of evidence on their health effects beyond the current outbreak. A review published in 2014 by University of California researchers in the journal Circulation combined data from 71 different studies on e-cigarettes. A second large review by Danish researchers in the journal Preventative Medicine, also published in 2014, combined data from 76 studies.

Both reviews found concrete evidence that nicotine is addictive and harmful, especially for youth. Nicotine can make it more difficult for young people with developing brains to concentrate, learn and control their impulses. And because nicotine is addictive, it can prime young brains to become more easily addicted to other, more dangerous substances.

What seems to be equally problematic, according to the reviews, is the marketing of e-cigarettes. Advertisements tout e-cigarettes as cheaper and cleaner than tobacco cigarettes and promote them to use in places where traditional smoking is banned.  Advertisements for tobacco cigarettes have been banned from television and radio since the 1970s, but this ban doesn’t apply to e-cigarettes. Ads on social media sites promote the high-tech features and flavors of e-cigarettes, which may increase their appeal to youth.

The take-home message? E-cigarettes are dangerous and can clearly lead to serious illness. Even if someone using them doesn’t become sick in the current outbreak of illness, using e-cigarettes recreationally can still harm health, especially for young people.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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