The vape divide

Jury’s still out on health implications of e-cigarettes and vaporizing nicotine

Dale Price felt his lungs clear just days after he switched from traditional cigarettes to his vaping device.

Dale Price felt his lungs clear just days after he switched from traditional cigarettes to his vaping device.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Vaping 101:

A “vape pen” is a fountain-pen-sized rechargeable device to which you can add dry herbs or liquids (oils, most commonly). At the push of a button, the pen heats up the oil or herbs to create a vapor that is inhaled. Most vape shops offer a variety of flavored oils, as well as oils with varying amounts of nicotine, including zero.

Dale Price had been an on-and-off smoker for 30 years when he discovered vaporizing, a tobacco-free way to get the nicotine he craves. He’d tried to quit smoking before, and had been successful for long stretches, but the scene he inhabits as a musician and audio engineer would always lure him back.

He made another attempt seven weeks ago, putting down traditional cigarettes in favor of the electronic variety. He says he felt his lungs clear within a week, and by maintaining the ritual of smoking, he hasn’t had to change his patterns as dramatically as he did when he tried quitting with nicotine patches or gum.

Price, 48, hasn’t smoked a cigarette since he started vaping several months ago. His wife, Karen, a heavier smoker than he, also made the switch to vapor.

“Like all addictions, there’s an inherent understanding that it’s harmful for you, but there’s the addictive side of it that’s telling the brain, ‘Discard that information, give me what I want,’” said Price, who runs Electric Canyon Studios in Butte Creek Canyon.

“Especially with smoking, it’s in the back of your mind that it’s bad for you. Of all the deliberate things I do on a daily basis, it’s probably the one that’s going to take me out. I want to improve my [chances].”

Before he started vaping, Price conducted research online and came away feeling assured that the liquid nicotine compounds are safer than tobacco.

Not everyone agrees. There is a major split in the medical and scientific community over the safety of electronic cigarettes and vaping. Just last week, 129 physicians wrote the World Health Organization to encourage a strict regulatory stance on e-cigs. That came in response to a letter from 53 scientists to the WHO saying the opposite: that e-cigs should not be regulated like tobacco cigarettes because they represent a safer alternative that is “part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Because electronic cigarettes and vaping represent relatively new technology, research is scarce and results have been contradictory: University College London found that e-cig use reduces smoking, but two other studies (published in separate journals, JAMA Internal Medicine and Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology) determined there’s no such connection.

So, amid the haze of uncertainty, should smokers use electronic cigarettes to kick the habit? Experts in the field are wary.

“It’s very important that people understand that e-cigarettes are completely unregulated,” said Erika Sward, director of National Advocacy for the American Lung Association. “There is no oversight of what is in them—what people are inhaling when they are either using them or sitting next to someone who is using one—and they are a tobacco product. They contain nicotine and other chemicals, and the health impact is still to be determined.”

A key indicator that e-cigs are not official smoking-cessation devices is that they have not been designated as such by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Sward said that to her knowledge, no e-cig manufacturer has submitted its products for the FDA evaluation that patches and gums have undergone.

Bruce Baldwin, a smoking cessation instructor with the Butte County Office of Education, also views vaping with a skeptical eye. He’s concerned about smokers using e-cigs in conjunction with, not in lieu of, tobacco. Like Sward, he’s also worried about the unknown ingredients of the various vapors.

“Let’s not make the same mistake we made with cigarettes,” Baldwin said. “Let’s assume [e-cig use] is bad for you, regulate it as such, and if over time it turns out that it’s not as harmful as cigarettes, we can always ease the restrictions.

“But to allow electronic cigarette companies to do all the same things we allowed tobacco companies to do 100 years ago seems foolish to me. We saw the result of that.”

Sward agreed: “We are seeing the whole tobacco industry playbook being trotted out again. They’re glamorizing the product; they’re encouraging people to switch instead of quit; they’re using celebrity endorsers and candy flavors. We’re also seeing a lot of industry-funded research—that was a favorite tactic of the tobacco industry.”

E-cigs do not face the same advertising restrictions as tobacco products. Whether coincidence or causality, Baldwin notes a surprising amount of e-cig use among Butte County youth, amid a trend of decreased smoking. Surveys of 11th-graders at several county school districts found that e-cig users are at least twice as prevalent as cigarette smokers.

“That really scares me,” Baldwin said. “Let’s keep this stuff out of the hands of kids.”

Sward says the American Lung Association is pushing for federal oversight of e-cigs “as soon as possible. We’re very troubled by the doubling of usage in one year. No e-cigarette is safe and effective in helping smokers quit.”

Price, who’s been vaping for less than two months, is unsure how long he will continue to use nicotine vapor in lieu of smoking, though he said it could be several years. He’s concerned about unknown ingredients, but he’s more concerned about the carcinogens and myriad other hidden compounds in the cigarettes he’s so far been able to cast aside.

“I’ve been doing my research [on e-cig use],” he said “I’ve been trying to find compelling arguments against it; I thought it was too good to be true.”