Electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes) were developed as an alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes. They are often marketed as a safer alternative to smoking. But they’re not safe. They still put an addictive drug and chemicals into your body and into the air around you.
What is an e-cigarette?
E-cigarettes are battery-powered smoking devices. Some look like traditional cigarettes or pipes. Others are designed to look like pens or USB memory sticks. They use a cartridge filled with liquid. The liquid contains nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals. When you puff on the mouthpiece of the device, it activates a heating element. This heats up the liquid and turns it into vapor. You then inhale the vapor. This is why it’s called “vaping.”
Why are they used?
The makers of e-cigarettes market them for a variety of uses. Researchers are still in the early stages of studying e-cigarettes. But studies have shown that most of these claims are not true. Makers claim that e-cigarettes are:
- A safer alternative to smoking cigarettes. They claim that e-cigarettes don’t contain the harmful chemicals that cigarettes do.
- A way to “smoke” without getting addicted. Some cartridges don’t contain nicotine. Makers say you can go through the motions of smoking without harming yourself.
- Able to be “smoked” in places that cigarette smoking is not allowed. Many places have not yet banned vaping, so you can “smoke” seemingly wherever you want.
- A way to quit smoking. Marketers claim it is easier to quit smoking if you switch to vaping first.
Path to improved health
What does vaping do to the body?
In most cases, when you vape, you ingest nicotine. Nicotine affects your body in a number of ways.
- It stimulates your central nervous system. This increases your blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. Higher doses of nicotine can cause blood pressure and heart rate to go up higher. This can lead to an abnormal heart rate (arrhythmia). In rare cases, this can cause heart failure or death. Over time, nicotine can lead to medical problems. These include heart disease, blood clots, and stomach ulcers.
- It increases the level of dopamine in your brain. This chemical messenger affects the part of the brain that controls feelings of reward. This makes you feel pleasure from the behavior. It can motivate you to use nicotine again and again to get that feeling of pleasure. You do this even though you know it is a risk to your health and well being. That is what makes nicotine addictive.
What are the dangers of vaping?
Health experts have a variety of concerns about the safety of e-cigarettes and vaping.
- There is no evidence that it’s safe to use the products long-term.
- The ingredients in the liquid are not labeled.
- The level of nicotine may not be on the label. In large doses, nicotine can be toxic.
- There can be chemicals in the liquid. Some of these are known to cause cancer. One study found a toxic chemical that is found in antifreeze.
- They are marketed for reasons that the makers have no evidence to support.
- Tiny particles are released by the heating element and may be harmful.
- The liquid in the cartridge can be poisonous if someone touches, sniffs, or drinks it. There has been an increase in poisoning cases of children under 5 who have had access to the liquid.
- Secondhand e-cigarette vapor contains chemicals that harm the lungs and heart of people who aren’t vaping.
- They serve as an introductory product for preteens and teens. Many kids start with vaping and then move on to other tobacco products.
Teens and vaping
E-cigarettes are now the most commonly used form of tobacco by teens in the United States. Reasons for this include:
- easy availability
- effective advertising
- variety of flavors
- belief that they’re a safer alternative.
But teenagers face increased risks from e-cigarettes. The teen years are a critical time in brain development. This puts young people uniquely at risk for long-lasting effects. Nicotine affects the development of brain circuits that control attention and learning. It puts kids at higher risk of having mood disorders and permanent problems with impulse control. It also affects the development of the brain’s reward system. This can make other, more dangerous, drugs more pleasurable to a teen’s developing brain.
There is much still to be learned about e-cigarettes and vaping. Since it’s relatively new, there aren’t long-term studies on the effects it may have. Until these long-term effects are known, doctors are encouraging patients to avoid e-cigarettes.
Things to consider
If you smoke and want to quit, e-cigarettes may not be the best way to go. The action of vaping closely mimics the action of smoking. You might be able to quit cigarettes, but you’ll still be addicted to nicotine.
The FDA has approved 7 methods of smoking cessation. These include nicotine gum, nicotine patches, and medicines. (Vaping is not one of the 7 approved methods.) Whether you are quitting cigarettes or vaping, any of these can be helpful. Here are some other tips that might help:
- Talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to suggest nicotine replacement therapy. They also may be able to prescribe medicines to help you quit.
- Make a plan. Set a date to begin the quitting process. Try going cold turkey. If that’s too hard, you can set goals as part of your process. These can be as small as having one less e-cigarette a day for a week. Then you can continue to cut back on a schedule until you no longer smoke or vape.
- Stay busy. Keep your mind off smoking by keeping busy. Do activities with your hands to keep them occupied. Plan ahead for times when you know you’ll want to smoke, such as after a meal or when you go out.
- Put off cravings. Cravings can be hard to resist, but they usually pass. Tell yourself to wait until a certain time, and the urge to smoke will often be gone by then.
- Get support. Surround yourself with people who support you. Tell your friends and family that you are quitting so they can be supportive. If you don’t want anyone to know you smoke or vape, join an online or in-person support group.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Are e-cigarettes a better alternative to regular cigarettes?
- How is vaping bad for me?
- Is second-hand smoke from vaping harmful?
- How can I quit smoking e-cigarettes?
- I want to quit smoking cigarettes. Should I switch to e-cigarettes first?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.