The Great Vape Debate

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Artwork: Joel Matheson

Artwork: Joel Matheson

Vaping has become more prominent in the past five years or so. We all seem to have at least one friend who occasionally totes a slick mechanical gizmo and sucks on it with gusto, belching massive clouds of smoke. Some people replace cigarettes with a vaporiser, seeking an alternative to smoking with less harmful side effects. Consumers with these concerns are a major target for e-cigarette manufacturers, whose products are typically touted as a safer option for those looking to grab a fix of nicotine. However, the safety of e-cigarettes remains a point of contention. 

Proponents argue that e-liquid’s strong suit lies in its chemical simplicity. While cigarettes have been demonstrated to contain over 4,000 different compounds, 443 of which are known toxins, one can supposedly count the components of the average e-cigarette on one hand: water, nicotine, a base compound (generally propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin) and often a flavouring agent. Advocates for e-cigarettes claim that these base compounds, which have long been used as additives in food and cosmetics, are, at the very least, much safer to inhale than the toxic mixture found in the average cigarette. Considering the laundry list of poisons tobacco companies lace their products with, this doesn’t seem such a far-fetched proposal. 

Artwork: Joel Matheson

Artwork: Joel Matheson

Moreover, various studies have suggested that short-term inhalation of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin appears to present no significant hazards in most people. These conclusions are based, however, on limited human experience. Due to the infancy of vape culture, we won’t be able to conduct the kind of long-term research that has condemned cigarette smoking for years to come. Furthermore, propylene glycol, which is also used in theatrical smoke, has been linked with eye irritation and respiratory distress. At this point, it’s probably prudent to recall the fact that Big Tobacco enjoyed the official endorsement of many physicians until the 1950s; could the emergence of e-cigarettes be a case of history repeating itself? Will we discover in forty years time that we have been inching our vape-happy lungs toward an early grave?

Most critics of vaping cite lack of regulation as a major cause for concern. In the US, the FDA’s supervision of the e-cigarette industry remains limited—regulations seeking to add nicotine warning labels and prevent sales of vaporisers to minors were proposed in April 2014, but no legislation has been announced. However, 44 states have taken matters into their own hands, fulfilling one of these propositions in barring underage purchase. Still, the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other medical organisations in the US, have condemned the continued ability of e-cigarette companies to target consumers, especially young people, via TV, radio, print and sponsor-based advertising.

Conversely, in Australia e-cigarette companies are prohibited from marketing their products on mainstream media. Proponents who elevate the importance of raising awareness about e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to smoking are frustrated by these restrictions; opponents agree wholeheartedly with them, arguing that e-cigarettes have the dangerous potential to re-socialise smoking culture and damage the public conception that smoking is a harmful activity.

Artwork: Joel Matheson

Artwork: Joel Matheson

Critics’ concerns aren’t wholly grounded in social factors, however. The chemical composition of e-liquids, the oils vaporised to produce vapour in e-cigarettes, can vary between manufacturers. Some have been found to contain diacetyl, a buttery-tasting additive found in microwave popcorn, the inhalation of which can lead to bronchiolitis obliterans (BO), a form of irreversible lung damage known colloquially as ‘popcorn lung’. In one particular case that caught media attention in the early 2000s, eight former workers of a popcorn plant in Missouri were shown to have developed life-threatening BO from inhaling airborne diacetyl. Since then, numerous other legal investigations have seen similarly-affected plaintiffs awarded large damages. These situations suggest that quality control in the e-cigarette industry should be a significant concern while manufacture remains poorly regulated in many areas of the world.

Overall, much of the evidence currently available does appear to suggest that vaporisers administer nicotine with far less adverse effects than traditional cigarettes. For one, inhaling smoke creates tar deposits in lungs, has cancer-causing effects, destroys tastebuds and blackens teeth; vaporising appears to circumvent most of these major issues. However, without any longitudinal studies to more accurately determine the health impacts of vaping e-liquid over time, not to mention the issues caused by poor industry regulation and the demonstrated links between popular base chemicals and adverse effects, it’s nigh impossible to be sure.