E-cigarettes and their potential health implications have taken centre stage in recent months after 33 people were confirmed to have died from vaping-related illnesses in the United States, the youngest of which was just 13.
A further 1,500 cases of lung problems related to the smoking alternative have been reported in the US, prompting the White House to reveal it would ask the Food and Drug Administration to ban non-tobacco flavoured e-cigarettes from the market.
Meanwhile, the Centers of Disease Control says no specific substance or single type of e-cigarette device has been linked to the cases, however around 80 per cent of people have said they were using liquids which contained cannabinoid products, such as THC. The federal organisation is also investigating a substance called vitamin E acetate, which can be found in many e-liquid products in the states.
Although no singular cause has been proven, the potential US-wide ban, which has already come into action in the state of Michigan, has sparked a global conversation on whether e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes.
But, should vapers be concerned about potentially suffering from health implications in the future? And can we still rely on e-cigarettes as a safe quitting aid for getting off traditional cigarettes?
According to Dan Marchant, CEO of the Vape Club and founding member of the Vaping Industry Association, the surge in vape-related illnesses in the US is down to a lack of regulation surrounding the manufacturing of nicotine vape products, a heavy contrast from here in the UK.
Speaking to UNILAD, he explained:
In the UK and Europe we have robust regulations governing the ingredients used in vaping products and the manufacture of the devices themselves, including the obligation to conduct emissions tests and create a full toxicological dossier on all nicotine containing e-liquids.
This information must be submitted to our Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency before it can be placed on the market. This ensures that our consumers can have complete faith in the products that they are purchasing.
We have a strict list of banned ingredients which includes anything with carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic properties, formaldehyde, Diacetyl and many more.
Back in 2015, Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians conducted an in-depth study in which they decided vaping is 95 per cent safer than smoking, which is known to kill thousands of people each year in the UK alone.
However, the smoking alternative has been accused of enticing young non-smokers onto the market, thanks to the wide range of sweet e-liquid flavours available.
This prompted Michigan state governor Gretchen Whitmer to pass a bill banning the sale of non-tobacco flavoured e-cigarettes, including menthol and mint products.
In a statement, she said:
For too long, companies have gotten our kids hooked on nicotine by marketing candy-flavored vaping products as safe. That ends today.
Whitmer said she believes the ‘candy taste’ of e-cig flavourings like ‘Froot Loops, Fanta, and Nilla wafers’ is what is enticing teens and has led to a 20 per cent increase in teen vaping between 2017 and 2018.
On her announcement to Michigan state senators, Whitmer said:
Behind the candy taste, however, is a product that hooks kids and adults alike. E-cigarettes can deliver nicotine more than twice as quickly as tobacco cigarettes.
She added that although e-cigs were made with the intention of giving smokers a way to avoid toxins in normal cigarettes, they have instead created millions of new smokers addicted to nicotine.
Out of the 530 cases of severe pulmonary disease reported across the US, the majority have reportedly involved young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who were initially suspected to have a pneumonia-like infection.
These cases of respiratory illness have resulted in severe symptoms, including chest pain, coughing shortness of breath and vomiting. In each of the confirmed cases, patients had vaped nicotine or the marijuana constituent THC within the last 90 days.
However, Dan Marchant insists that e-cigarettes are designed purely for the use of adult smokers as a harm reduction alternative, and should never be marketed as a ‘safe way to smoke’.
He told UNILAD:
We still have 8 million adult smokers in the UK, not a single person in the industry wants to repeat the old tobacco tactics of a bygone era by trying to attract children. That would be both morally wrong, and extremely detrimental to an industry which is doing huge amounts of good for the public health of this country.
Dan went on to say that figures from Action on Smoking and Health released in June claimed that only one per cent of young people experimented with vaping because it ‘looks cool’.
It should stay this way, because vaping is not cool. You don’t look cool with a USB stick hanging out your gob, and you don’t look cool sucking on a sonic screwdriver. These products are not glamorous, they’re simply a less harmful alternative to smoking.
However, I am of course aware that the figures in the US are allegedly very different, and even here in the UK where the numbers are extremely low – it is still too many underage vapers in my opinion. But this is not a problem with the products, it is a problem with irresponsible retailing.
Dan believes that simply banning e-cigarettes is not the way to tackle underage vaping, citing how no one ever suggested banning cigarettes as a fix to underage smoking.
He says, instead of vilifying the products, we should be vilifying the unscrupulous retailers who are knowingly selling them to children.
We need to impose huge penalties and ensure that there is a countrywide clamp down on age verification. If they cannot get the products they cannot use the products. That’s how we operate with cigarettes and that’s how we should operate with vaping.
Despite the reported deaths in the US, doctors in the UK are still promoting vaping as a safe way to quit smoking.
Dr Diana Gall, who works for online doctors service Doctor-4-U, said vaping is much less damaging to health compared to smoking, however it’s not completely harmless.
She explained to UNILAD:
When you smoke or use an e-cigarette, you inhale nicotine, but unlike smoking, the nicotine from e-cigarettes comes in a vapour and doesn’t require burning tobacco.
That means that vaping does not expose the body to unpleasant substances such as tar and carbon monoxide, which can cause cancers and are among the biggest threats to health when smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products.
Some people do mistakenly believe that nicotine itself is dangerous, which would make vaping almost as dangerous as smoking. While nicotine is addictive, it cannot cause smoking-related diseases such as cancers or heart disease.
Pure nicotine is a toxic compound, but the nicotine found in tobacco, e-liquids and nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) is not pure enough to be poisonous, so reports of this being an issue for consumers are exceptionally rare.
Dr Gall continued to say that the safest thing to do is use high quality, official e-cigarette products, which will have passed all of the strict UK regulations.
The Centers of Disease Control has said many of the victims of the illness had used the devices to consume THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, purchased on the black market.
At this stage, none of the cases have been linked to the act of vaping in itself, rather the substance that is being consumed via the e-cigarette.
According to the World Health Organisation, 41 million people admitted to vaping with e-cigarettes in 2018 – a number which continues to rise.
There’s currently no worldwide consensus on the safety of e-cigarettes. In the US, doctors are asking people to consider not using e-cigarettes while investigations into the health risks are carried out, however in the UK doctors continue to promote vaping as being significantly less harmful than smoking.
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Emma Rosemurgey is an NCTJ trained Journalist who started her career by producing The Royal Rosemurgey newspaper in 2004, which kept her family up to date with the goings on of her sleepy north east village. She graduated from the University of Central Lancashire in Preston and started her career in regional newspapers before joining Tyla (formerly Pretty 52) in 2017, and progressing onto UNILAD in 2019.