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Vaping: A Major Minor Issue

Apr 03, 2018 08:43PM ● By Alison Clary

Vaping: A Major Minor Issue By Alison Clary

Since the 1960s, we've seen the iconic warning label “The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous to Your Health.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now says e-cigarette use, commonly known as vaping, is the latest threat to public health and has way surpassed conventional tobacco use among American youth. Because adolescents and young adults have brains that are still growing, they are especially vulnerable to nicotine and other toxic chemical exposure.

What is vaping?

While the traditional cigarette is a small cylinder stick of finely cut tobacco rolled inside a thin sheet of paper that is smoked through combustion, e-cigarettes are smokeless, non-tobacco, electronic (battery-run) hand-held devices that produce flavored steam. The battery powered atomizer coil heats up an insertable pod of flavored “e-liquid” to create vapor, which the user inhales then exhales, hence the term “vaping.” There is no smoke and the user can “pull” with deep or shallow breaths. These devices are also called e-hookahs, vape pens, tank systems, and more.

While there are many differences between conventional cigarettes and e-cigarettes, both contain flavorings, chemical additives, and nicotine. The e-liquid used in e-cigarettes comes in different nicotine concentrations, but the amounts don’t always match the label, and even the nicotine-free version usually contains some nicotine. Innocuous sounding flavors available in e-liquids include buttered popcorn, caramel cheesecake, cinnamon, cotton candy, mango, mint, passion fruit, raspberry, and vanilla.

Why Do People Vape?

People vape for a variety of reasons. E-cigarettes were originally created so adult smokers could wean themselves off traditional cigarettes while simulating smoking. And since vaping doesn’t involve smoke, flames, ashes, butts, or offensive odor, some view it as a less dangerous and more socially acceptable alternative. Teens say they vape because they are curious about it, think it looks cool, and like the wide variety of flavors. Unfortunately, they also view vaping as “healthier” than smoking but do not cite e-cigarettes as a method for quitting conventional smoking. 

California teens in middle school and high school use e-cigarettes at double and triple the rate of conventional cigarettes but are also three times more likely to progress to traditional smoking a year after trying e-cigarettes.

Vaping has grown dramatically in popularity, with the sharpest increase occurring between 2011 and 2015. Because the trend is only about 10 years old, long-term effects are not conclusive, however, exhaustive current studies support what we DO know – that inhaling toxic and addictive chemicals through vaping is becoming a new epidemic, and teenagers are particularly susceptible.

How is Vaping Dangerous?

Although manufacturers will argue that e-liquids contain “approved food additives” like propylene glycol, which is widely found in food and cosmetics and may be safe to ingest and swallow, that doesn’t make them safe to inhale. When vaporized through the highly heated coil of the e-cigarette device, these additives don’t produce “harmless water vapor” but rather change into VOCs (volatile organic compounds), a class of toxic chemicals that includes acrolein, acrylamide, acrylonitrile, crotonaldehyde, and propylene oxide. Acrylonitirile, a man-made chemical, evaporates quickly and goes into making products such as plastic. Fruit-flavored e-liquids produce a high amount of this known carcinogen. Some liquids contain heavy metals and silicates that cause inflammation in the lungs, exacerbate asthma, and decrease one’s immune response. A Harvard University study also discovered diacetyl in most of the e-liquids tested. This is the chemical that became famous for causing “popcorn lung,” which appeared in workers who inhaled artificial butter flavor at microwave popcorn factories.

Candy and fruit flavored e-liquids, commonly called “e-juices,” are particularly popular, so manufacturers are very shrewd in how they market these products to youth. As Dr. Mark Rubinstein, professor of pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco, says, flavors such as unicorn poop and bubble gum are clearly meant to target teenagers, not adults trying to wean themselves off traditional cigarettes.

Incidentally, there is also danger from second-hand vapor. Airborne particles passively inhaled from vapor contain nicotine and toxic substances. Also, malfunctioning devices and over-charging the lithium-ion batteries in e-cigarettes have caused explosions and burns.

Why Are Teens More Vulnerable to E-Cigarettes?

Nicotine is almost always found in e-juice, even when it’s supposed to be nicotine-free. It is an established fact that nicotine is harmful to human health. It is also extremely addictive and can be as hard to quit as cocaine or heroin. The toxic and addictive chemicals in e-cigs, including nicotine, have more durable and damaging effects on adolescent brains. The pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed until around age 25, and this is the area of the brain responsible for reasoning, judgment, controlling impulses and emotion, attention span, and mood. When you consider that yielding to impulses and taking risks are common traits within the teen population, the proliferation of e-cigarettes is not surprising.


One of the most popular e-cigarettes is JUUL, dubbed this generation’s “iPhone of e-cigs.” It resembles a thumb drive, so parents and teachers don’t always know what they’re seeing if their kids or students have them. Although the JUUL manufacturer says it was intended for adult smokers, this sleek, closed device can be charged from a laptop, is user-friendly, and has short-lived puffs of smoke, so students can use it discreetly, even during class behind their teachers’ backs, without getting caught. Schools are on the lookout for “Juuling” and are confiscating these devices more and more.

Although it is illegal to sell e-cigarettes and e-liquids to customers under age 21, minors can buy them easily online by merely checking the “I’m at least 21” box or having older friends purchase them for them. JUUL starter packs retail for $49.99 and contain four pre-filled cartridges, or pods, to sample: fruit medley, cool mint, crème brulee, and Virginia tobacco. Pods, which are brightly colored and resemble art supplies, cost between $14 to $19, and each pod is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes. As the popularity of e-cigarettes has grown, the cost has decreased and sales have skyrocketed. While cigarette TV ads were banned in 1971, e-cigarette ads endorsed by celebrities are on the air, radio, Internet, and in print.


Nicotine is addictive and carcinogenic. The adolescent brain is still growing and developing, which makes it particularly vulnerable to harmful substances. Even if you choose a lower or non-nicotine version of an e-cigarette, you will still get the harmful effects of heated aerosol from e-liquid. A good website for young adults is

Many sources were used in researching this article, including California Department of Public Health, Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, and Centers for Disease Control.