It’s a strange world when cigarettes have to be charged and phones are prone to catching fire. Vaping is one of the fastest-growing “lifestyle” activities, boasting its own specialized retail outlets, competitions and other community activities. In many ways, vaping lives in a regulatory gray area: how should vaping juices and paraphernalia be taxed, and should children be allowed access to them? At the same time, the debate surrounding e-cigarettes and their associated health risks is taking place against the backdrop of a market in products intended to help people stop smoking that’s worth $3 billion, as well as a tobacco industry that pays upwards of $13 billion in excise taxes alone.
Vaping Versus Smoking
For obvious reasons, vaping is naturally compared to smoking cigarettes. As far as public health is concerned, cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco are all far less important. The nicotine in vaping liquids – many of which are nicotine-free – is identical to that found in nicotine replacement gum or dermal patches.
As it happens, one of the advantages of vaping is that it apparently helps smokers to quit, or at least reduce their consumption of tobacco. Many start the vaping habit with nicotine-laced mixtures but soon discard these in favor of herbal or other flavored blends. At the very least, this reduces the aggravation people around them are forced to suffer. To a dedicated vaper, calling what they do “smoking” is so inaccurate as to be offensive.
The substance they inhale truly isn’t smoke, but rather consists mostly of water vapor with some other chemicals added. Some of these chemicals are indeed harmful, but are found in much lower concentrations than what is present in cigarette smoke. In fact, the British Royal College of Physicians has gone on record to state that e-cigarettes are far, far less harmful than the traditional kind and are therefore to be recommended to those that currently smoke. In general, the scientific consensus appears to be that vaping may be bad for you, but it certainly doesn’t entail anything near the amount of risk that traditional smoking does. Even when vaping liquids contain nicotine, they are not associated with the several thousand other potentially harmful chemicals found in ordinary tobacco smoke.
Children and Vaping
In Florida, the popularity of e-cigarettes amongst teens has increased fivefold since 2011, to the alarm of public health officials. The vaping industry has been accused of targeting their marketing towards younger people, especially by offering their products in candy-like flavors such as cherry and caramel. The lack of a burning sensation in the throat and an unpleasant odor may indeed be making vaping more attractive to the youth, and it can conceivably play the role of a “gateway” drug, although this remains to be proven. What is certain, however, is that illegal drugs such as cannabis can be “smoked” with vaping equipment.
On the other hand, the increase in vaping among the younger generation also coincides with historically low levels of tobacco use in the traditional sense, making it difficult to conclusively determine whether the effects of e-cigarettes have been good or bad from a public health standpoint.
A Political Football
Few politicians have ever lost votes promoting public health – or at least giving the impression of doing so. While it took decades for tobacco products to be controlled and taxed to the extent they are now, state and national legislators seem to be acting with alacrity against the possible threat of vaping.
Unlike with smoking tobacco, though, the science on vaping as a health risk is far from clear-cut, especially when it’s considered as an alternative for adults who currently smoke. Despite the enthusiasm with which lawmakers are trying to get vaping products to be treated in much the same way as traditional cigarettes, they may be hurting rather than helping public health. The vaping industry lobby, such as it is, has little political influence, while the most vocal politicians aren’t necessarily the most scientifically educated.
Using e-cigarettes will do nothing good to your body, but they are indeed an effective way to stop smoking. As a method of harm reduction, for individuals as well as in a wider context, they are most likely very beneficial, but on a societal level vaping is still seen not as the lesser of two evils, but just the same evil in a different shape.