Vaping’s Plausible Deniability Is Going Up in Smoke

Updated at 1:31 p.m. ET on September 5, 2019.

To market a product as less harmful than cigarettes is to damn it with faint praise.

America has known about the catastrophic harm smoking does to the human body for decades, so when e-cigarettes became widely available in the early 2010s, they were greeted with some optimism. The devices deliver nicotine or cannabinoids via vapor instead of smoke, which avoids some of the nasty by-products of combustion. There’s no way they could be as bad as cigarettes, right?

That rationale has helped nicotine-vaping rates explode since 2015, especially among teens. The same technology has become popular among cannabis users both legal and non-. But the question of vaping’s relative danger has recently taken on a much more desperate tone. While vaping is still so new that broad, long-term data on inhaling the often mysterious chemicals found in both nicotine and cannabis “vape juice” won’t be available for years, Americans are beginning to see the effects that heavy or extended use of the vaping market’s vast array of products might have.

The early evidence is alarming. A report today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 450 cases in 33 states of a mysterious “vaping illness” that affects the lungs of otherwise healthy people, most of them under the age of 30. So far, three people have died, and the CDC is investigating a fourth.

As stories pile up of sicknesses, side effects, and the potential for long-term consequences, it’s clear that “safe” and “safer than smoking cigarettes” are vastly different things.

That argument also ignores the small but growing body of evidence that nicotine vaping could harm long-term users by itself, and especially those who start young. The FDA is investigating more than 120 reports of seizures and other neurological symptoms linked to vapes between 2010 and 2019. At least some of those cases have been linked to devices from Juul, the brand that commands more than 70 percent of the nicotine-vaping market in the United States and that has found particularly wide favor among teens and young adults. (In response to mounting health concerns, Juul CEO Kevin Burns has publicly urged people who aren’t already cigarette smokers to avoid vaping, including with products made by his company.)

Beyond official investigations of health problems that are already occurring, some experts fear what can’t yet be known. Popular e-cigarette formats require vapers to inhale the same kinds of fine particulates present in outdoor air pollution. No research is yet available on the consequences of ingesting those particles from vaping specifically, but studies on smoking and pollution have found that the particles become embedded in the lungs and are linked to increased rates of heart attack and cardiovascular disease.

Research suggests that switching to e-cigarettes might be an effective harm-reduction tactic for people who already smoke cigarettes. But the real problem of vaping isn’t all that different from the one presented by cigarettes: Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical, and feeding that addiction requires repeated long-term contact with all kinds of solvents, emulsifiers, and by-products that have either harmful or unknown consequences for those who inhale them. Legal e-cigarettes have reversed a decades-long downward trend in teen tobacco use, and no one knows with any certainty what picking up that habit might do to those kids. By the time researchers do, it might be too late.

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