Living Well

Know the risks of e-cigarettes and vaping

Bennett deBoisblanc, MD
Know the risks of e-cigarettes and vaping

You’ve undoubtedly heard the public service messages many times over the years: cigarette smoking is really bad for your health and is the most common cause of preventable death. Smoking can cause heart disease, emphysema, and cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and lung, to name a few.

These messages, combined with tobacco control legislation, have led to a reduction in cigarette smoking among U.S. adults from 42 percent in 1965 to approximately 15 percent now.

Rise of vaping

Over the last decade, electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) have been introduced as a non-regulated “safe alternative” to tobacco smoking. E-cigarettes are devices that look like small writing pens or USB “thumb” drives. They contain heating elements or miniature ultrasonic nebulizers that vaporize liquids containing nicotine. Hence their use is termed “vaping.”

More and more people are using e-cigarettes. Current and former smokers of tobacco are trying nicotine vaping in an attempt to quit smoking altogether. Even though these devices don’t use tobacco, they still contain nicotine—a highly addictive drug. Unfortunately, teens are also trying e-cigarettes, often with added flavorings, such coffee, mint, and cherry. This marketing strategy is similar to that used by big tobacco companies in the 60s and 70s to addict young persons to tobacco.

Health risks

Little research has been done on e-cigarettes. It's not clear whether e-cigarettes help current smokers stop smoking. Teens who get addicted to e-cigarettes may switch to regular cigarettes. This can then lead to the serious health problems caused by smoking tobacco. At high doses, nicotine can cause dizziness and vomiting. Users who refill their own cartridges are at a greater risk for unsafe levels of the drug. Nicotine poisoning is a big concern in children. Children younger than 5 have been harmed after accidentally coming into contact with the nicotine liquid.

Custom vaping liquids can be easily purchased on the internet. These products may contain THC (the psychoactive chemical in marijuana), other psychoactive drugs, and even unknown toxic chemicals. For example, some vaping liquids have been shown to contain acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and even acrolein, a weed killer linked to acute lung injury, asthma, COPD, and lung cancer.

Common myths about the safety of vaping, especially among adolescents, are now leading to nicotine addiction and to other serious health effects. As of August 27, 2019, 215 possible cases of severe pulmonary disease associated with the use of e-cigarettes have been reported by 25 states and additional pulmonary illnesses are under investigation, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Affected patients have had symptoms such as shortness of breath, fever, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, dizziness and chest pain, and some were hospitalized for weeks. Thus far, there has been one reported death.

Safe ways to quit

If you want to stop smoking, talk with your doctor about safe ways that are proven to help. The American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society are also great resources.

Dr. deBoisblanc is a Professor of Medicine and Physiology in the Section of Pulmonary/Critical Care & Allergy/Immunology at LSU Health New Orleans. He specializes in lung diseases and in the care of ICU patients and is nationally recognized for his expertise.

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