Trying to get your questions about vaping answered? Want to know the pros and cons of vaping?
In this expert guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about vaping. We’ll provide a brief introduction to e-cigarette and vape use, explain the difference between vaping vs smoking cigarettes, and discuss the benefits of vaping and the negative effects of vaping.
What Is Vaping?
“Vaping” refers to the practice of using an e-cigarette or other vaporizer to inhale a heated, flavored aerosol vapor of propylene glycol, glycerin, flavorings, and (usually) nicotine. The general principle of an e-cigarette or vape is that a heating element heats up the e-liquid, turning it into vapor, which the user can then inhale.
Vaporizing devices, or “vapes” come in a variety of configurations and makes. Some look just like regular cigarettes and the user has little or no control over how much vapor the device produces or what flavorings they can purchase. Some give the user lots of control and allow almost limitless customization. This means that depending on the flavors used and the vape type, the amount of vapor inhaled, the ingredients in the vapor, and the level of nicotine vary widely.
Vaping has become a very controversial practice in recent years as its popularity has increased. And of course, different groups have different views towards and approaches to vaping as a practice. Big tobacco companies look to increase their share of the e-cigarette market as it becomes increasingly profitable. Smaller vape producers and retailers want to protect their market share from big tobacco and expensive regulatory processes. Consumers want affordable products with lots of customization options.
Public health experts are highly divided on the pros and cons of vaping. Some view vaping as a harmful and dangerous practice that will re-normalize smoking in the general population (and especially youth). Others view it as a much less harmful alternative to traditional smoking, taking a harm reduction approach.
The different and often clashing interests of various factions can make it hard to get straightforward information about the effects of vaping. This is confounded by the fact that because vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, there’s just not very much information about its long-term effects. However, we’ve summarized everything that we do currently know about vaping in this article.
Note: some people use special vape pens to vape marijuana (in either dried herb or oil form). The pros and cons of vaping vs. smoking weed are outside the scope of this guide—but solid data on this issue is even harder to find than data on nicotine vaping given weed’s variable legal status.
Potential Benefits to Vaping
Let’s be clear on one thing right off the bat: vaping is not healthy. Any time you are inhaling hot aerosols into your lungs, you are exposing them to irritants and opening up the potential for long-term damage. Small particulate matter can lodge deep in the branching airways of the lungs and cause long-term inflammation and damage.
So is vaping bad for lungs? Yes. Is vaping bad for your health? Also yes. However, this does not mean that vaping is not without benefits. Particularly if you are already a smoker, vaping may be something worth considering. Here are three potential benefits of vaping as compared to smoking:
Vaping Can Help You Reduce How Much You Smoke
The primary benefit to vaping is that it can help smokers to quit or cut back on smoking. As most people are aware, smoking is one of the most dangerous and toxic practices out there. So any time you can replace smoking a cigarette with something less harmful, you’re doing your body a favor. Given that vaping is certainly less healthy than just breathing the air, any vaping health benefits have to be considered as compared to smoking.
Vaping and cigarettes both deliver nicotine, which is what makes cigarettes addictive. Most of the harms of smoking come from compounds other than nicotine. Vaping has nicotine but no tobacco; this is one of the primary things that, by comparison, makes the practice much safer. It’s possible to get e-liquid with a wide variety of nicotine amounts, from 0 to 36 mg per ml. (However, nicotine is not without harms on its own: it does harm the cardiovascular system and is bad for the developing brains of adolescents.)
Vaping does expose you to some of the same negative compounds as smoking, but typically in smaller amounts. For example, heating the e-liquid produces carbonyls like formaldehyde and acrolein, which are toxic when inhaled. The vapor can also expose you to dangerous heavy metals. But these compounds are present in even larger quantities in cigarettes.
However, vaping may expose you to comparable amounts of inhaled nitric oxide as traditional cigarettes, which can impair heart and lung function.
Propylene glycol (PG) and glycerin, the two main ingredients of e-liquid juice, are “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. PG is actually found in lots of asthma inhalers and is not considered carcinogenic (cancer-causing). However, repeated exposure to large amounts of PG may irritate the respiratory system, and the effects of inhaling hot propylene glycol aren’t very well understood.
Overall, however, it’s undeniable that vaping exposes you to smaller amounts of harmful chemicals than smoking. Public Health England describes e-cigarette use as 95% safer than traditional cigarette use. (While others have disputed the 95% figure, even critics admit that vaping is less harmful than smoking). Thus, if you can replace some or all of the cigarettes you smoke with vaping, you are inhaling fewer harmful chemicals.
According to the American Public Health Association, the best available studies do suggest that vaping is about as successful in aiding cessation as other nicotine replacement methods, like gums and patches. However, some have posited that smokers who are highly addicted to nicotine may actually have better luck with vaping as compared to nicotine gum or patches, because they will get their nicotine fix faster through vaping. Vaping represents one strategy among many potential strategies for smoking cessation or reduction; it will doubtless be more appealing and/or more helpful for some people as opposed to others.
Some experts hesitate to say definitively that vaping is less harmful than smoking, simply because vaping hasn’t been around for long enough for us to have data on the long-term harms. People have only been vaping for about ten years, while we have decades of data on the long-term harms of smoking. It is conceivably possible that there are long-term harms we don’t yet know about. With that said, it’s unlikely based on the evidence that we do have about what’s in e-cigarettes that those harms would be in any way comparable to the long-term harms of smoking. So the answer to the question “is vaping worse than smoking?” is definitely “no.”
In conclusion, then, vaping is a less toxic way to get your nicotine fix than cigarettes. Even if you don’t quit nicotine use, replacing smoking with vaping is still better for you. Even replacing some of your cigarettes with vaping is better for your health!
Vaping Is Cheaper Than Smoking
Moving on from the health question, there are other potential benefits to vaping as compared to smoking. First, vaping is typically cheaper in the long run than smoking. There’s a higher cost outlay initially to buy the vape device, but over time, buying e-cig juice is much cheaper than buying packs of traditional cigarettes. (The linked source is an e-cig review site so you can take some of the information with a grain of salt, but the math on the savings is solid.) Of course, if e-cigarettes end up being taxed at the same rate as cigarettes, these savings might vanish. But at the moment, it’s a cost-saver even if you spring for more expensive vape mods and liquids.
Vaping May Be More Convenient Than Smoking
One controversial benefit to vaping is that you can currently vape in many places where smoking is prohibited. This makes vape use more convenient, as you don’t necessarily have to leave every building or public space to vape as you would have to in order to smoke a traditional cigarette. (This certainly isn’t true everywhere—businesses may still ask you not to vape.) People around you may also be less irritated by the relatively unobtrusive vape juice vapors as compared to cigarette smoke! However, many cities are amending their clean indoor air laws to apply to e-cigarette and vaping devices, so this benefit may not last.
Negative Effects of Vaping
As we have already expressed, vaping is worse for your lungs and heart than not vaping at all, but vaping is better for your lungs and heart than smoking. Here are some downsides particular to vaping.
Vaping Is Unregulated
The e-cigarette and e-liquid market is currently relatively unregulated, which definitely a downside to vaping. Both vaping devices and e-liquid are often produced abroad, or domestically by small outfits. This means that it can be hard to be exactly sure what’s in a given batch of vape juice. This is especially problematic with flavoring, where particular flavors may have compounds like diacetyl, which in large quantities causes “popcorn lung” and was ruled by OSHA as an inhalation hazard. However, cigarettes also have diacetyl (and higher quantities of it) and some brands do have diacetyl-free guarantees. As a consumer, though, it can be hard to know what you need to look for or who to trust.
The FDA has recently announced that it is going to regulate e-cigarette and vaping products the same way as other tobacco products. Among a few other provisions, this means that manufacturers of e-liquid and vape juice will need to submit ingredient lists and the risks posed by the ingredients to the FDA for approval. This is good for the consumer, who won’t need to worry so much about unexpected substances showing up in their vape juice.
However, the regulatory process is likely to be expensive, which may have the inadvertent effect of ceding more of the e-cigarette market share to “big tobacco” if they are the only ones who can afford to stay in business throughout the expensive regulatory process.
Vaping Can Encourage Dual-Use
Critics of vaping worry that instead of e-cigarette users replacing traditional cigarettes with vaping, people may just use both without reducing their cigarette smoking. Instead of replacing smoking with vaping, then, people would just be adding vaping to their preexisting smoking. This is definitely bad for individual health because you’d just be layering a somewhat harmful practice on top of an already extremely harmful practice.
However, if clean air laws continue to be applied to e-cigarettes, some of this risk may be mitigated by the fact that users won’t be able to smoke or vape in many spaces, making dual-use less convenient.
Vaping Poses Some Risk to Others
While the risks of second-hand vapor are not as bad as the risks associated with second-hand smoke, there are still risks. Some proponents say that the vapor is just “water vapor,” but this simply isn’t true. Especially in enclosed or crowded places, it’s possible that those around you will inhale some of your exhaled vapor. As we discussed, the vapor from e-cigarettes has some compounds that can irritate the lungs and traces of toxic heavy metals.
Additionally, ingesting straight e-liquid juice orally or through the skin exposes you to toxic levels of nicotine. Thus, it is dangerous for e-liquid to be left out where children can access and open it, especially as packaging is not currently required to be childproof.
Vaping Could Re-Normalize Smoking (Maybe)
One of the major concerns about vaping is that it will re-normalize traditional smoking, especially among teens. The logic is that people may get used to seeing vaping in public places and then feel fine with people smoking around them. This theoretically creates a social norm in which smoking becomes acceptable, and then more people feel comfortable starting smoking. (Smoking is currently a highly stigmatized behavior in American culture.)
However, this relies on some pretty big assumptions. First: that people will have the same feelings about vaping as smoking. This may or not be true. Is vaping smoking? No. However, it does sometimes look a lot like it, especially when vapers use so-called “cigalikes” which are designed to make you feel more like you are holding a traditional cigarette.
Second, this line of argument also assumes vaping will actually become highly visible in places where smoking is currently prohibited. This is unlikely because as vaping becomes more regulated, it’s actually becoming subject to many of the same clean air laws and regulations as smoking. This means no vaping in business, workplaces, or in public outdoor spaces like parks.
Vaping: The Bottom Line
The dialogue around vaping is highly charged and there are many different stakeholders and opinions, so it can be hard to know what sources to trust. Additionally, there’s only some limited data on the long-term effects of vaping. However, we’re reporting on what information we do know now.
Here’s the basic breakdown on vaping and your health:
It’s best, of course, to neither vape nor smoke. How bad is vaping? Though we don’t yet have much longitudinal data on the effects of e-cigarette use, the data we do have shows that there are health downsides: Vaping is not safe: it can cause lung irritation, decreased pulmonary function, and deposit toxic heavy metals in your airways.
But is vaping safer than smoking? YES. vaping is considerably less toxic than smoking. In a vaping vs. smoking battle, the vape definitely wins!
This means that if you are trying to cut down on your smoking, replacing black tar cigarettes with a vape pen will reduce the level of harm done to your body. In this case and only this case, there are some vaping health benefits. Vaping may be an especially good quitting aid for those who are highly addicted to nicotine and need a delivery system that is relatively quick.
With that said, simply adding vaping to the smoking you already do (dual-use) is going to be worse for you than if you were just smoking.
So vaping is a less unhealthy alternative to cigarettes but still not a healthy practice.
Let’s turn to other pros and cons of vaping apart from the health issues. Here are some other potential benefits of vaping:
- Vaping is more cost-effective than smoking in the long run.
- You can currently vape in many places where smoking is not allowed—although many states and cities are amending clean indoor air laws to apply to e-cigarettes.
And here are some negative effects of vaping:
- Vaping is currently pretty unregulated, although the FDA is changing that.
- Vaping does pose some risk to those around you (although less than traditional cigarette smoke).
- It’s possible that extensive vaping could re-normalize traditional cigarette smoking.
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