teens

Is vaping really safer than smoking? Here's what experts say.

From sweet and fruity flavours to the discrete packaging, in recent years vaping has absolutely exploded in popularity. It's the trendy new thing to do. Just ask any teenager. Marketed as a safer alternative to cigarettes, the clouded swirls of smoke and fruity scents have become the norm on our streets, pubs, clubs... and schools.

But just how safe is it? 

While vaping hasn't exactly been around for long enough for studies to be done on long-term health effects, medical experts say we are starting to see some worrying health conditions. And it's hitting young people hard. 

Watch: How does smoking affect your face? Check out this video. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

For example, in 2019 there was a mysterious cluster of lung illnesses across the US - most of them were otherwise healthy people in their early 20s or teens. All of them have a history of vaping. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state agencies reported 2,602 lung injury cases that required hospitalisation and 59 deaths linked to vaping.

Patients with vaping-related lung injuries mostly involved younger people, especially young men and boys.

Listen: Is vaping still safer than smoking? Listen to this episode of the Quicky. Post continues below.

With 'old smokers' drying up and younger people no longer smoking cigarettes (97 per cent of teens don't smoke), experts are warning that big tobacco companies are making a tactical move - with teenagers and young adults top of mind.

So, what exactly is vaping and how harmful is it? Let's break it down.

What is vaping?

Shaped like cigarettes or pens, e-cigarettes or 'vapes' are battery-operated devices that use refillable tanks or disposable cartridges to heat liquid ("vape juice") which users inhale. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The liquid is a mix of chemicals and oils that can be combined with nicotine flavourings, such as chocolate and bubblegum.

But while it's meant to be much less lethal than cigarettes, how much do we really know about vaping? 

Is vaping safe?

After mountains of anti-smoking campaigns and a crackdown on legislation, it seems Big Tobacco isn't interested in selling cigarettes anymore. 

And it makes sense - younger adult smokers are the only replacement, and it's obvious the demand just isn't there. In case you missed it before, 97 per cent of Australians under the age of 18 have never smoked.

The answer? E-cigarettes.

In 2019, Philip Morris International - the biggest tobacco company in the world and the most popular brand worldwide - announced: 

"We've made a dramatic decision. We are building PMI's future on smoke-free products that - while not risk free - are a far better choice than cigarette smoking."

While some medical experts see vapes as a good thing in terms of harm reduction - something that is better for existing smokers - others aren't so convinced this is the real motive.

Part of this is because the fastest growing market in the vape business happens to be teenagers and young adults... individuals that aren't existing smokers.

Image: Getty 

According to the Daily Telegraph, an estimated 9.5 per cent of 12 to 15 year olds and 20.7 per cent of 16 to 17 year olds have used an e-cigarette.

ADVERTISEMENT

While vaping has seemingly been portrayed as the safer and cleaner way to 'smoke', medical experts, including The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), have warned of the long-term health dangers of e-cigarettes on young people.

Leading nicotine addiction specialist Professor Renee Bittoun said there is an incredible amount of misinformation surrounding vapes, including the effects they can have on teenagers and young adults.

"It's being promoted by the tobacco industry as a 'vape' rather than an e-cigarette - it reduces idea in people's minds of any sort of risk. A lot of people tend to think it's just water vapor, really."

But of course, that's not all it is. Professor Bittoun said one of the problems is that people don't know that the stuff they breathe out has nicotine in it too. And way more than they might think.

"If you take a drag, 80 per cent of what you breathe in goes out into the air - that's not a small amount. So people think if they're sitting in the car vaping 'water vapour', their kids can be in the back of the car because it's safe. It's just not true," said Professor Bittoun. 

"There is now accumulated evidence about passive vaping."

In a recent survey with NSW Toxicology Laboratory, Professor Bittoun tested ten vapes volunteered to her randomly from school kids between the ages of 12 to 17. All ten vapes had nicotine in them - some, she said, really high levels. 

"The kids didn't know. They just see it as a fruity, flavoured water vape - and that was it. And they're told that by the people that have sold it to them," Professor Bittoun said.

So, what kind of effect does nicotine in e-cigarettes have? And how does it compare to smoking cigarettes?

"There are all different types of e-cigarettes on the market, but the most contemporary ones have become so good at delivering nicotine right down deep into an area of the lungs - which hasn't happened in the past. They're more advanced than the older styles, which delivered nicotine into the upper airways," Professor Bittoun said.

"So, when you have it down in the depths of your lungs, that's where your arteries and arterial blood is picking up oxygen - now it's picking up nicotine, instead. They're now incredibly efficient. The speed of delivery of nicotine is massive, and it makes it much more addictive."

In 2019, a world-first study, published in the European Respiratory Journal, compared the effects of cigarettes and vaping on human cells. 

ADVERTISEMENT

It was found that electronic cigarettes are as toxic as tobacco cigarettes and can cause significant lung damage.

In an interview with Mamamia, scientist Dr Sukhwinder Sohal from the University of Tasmania said, "We found these products toxic to the cells, evident from decreased cellular viability and integrity. More devastatingly, vaping also interfered with cellular energetics."

"Our work suggested that these electronic devices have the potential to activate fibrotic and malignant pathology in the lung of users of these devices."

Meaning? When the cells are stimulated with these new vaping gadgets, they switch on to produce cancer-related proteins.

"Our results further substantiate current research that electronic cigarettes and IOQS are indeed detrimental with increases in oxidative stress, inflammation, infections, and airway remodelling in the lungs," said Dr Sohal.

"As the scientific evidence mounts, confirming the fears that electronic cigarettes and IQOS are strongly associated with the development and progression of debilitating lung diseases, now may be the prime time to include all electronic nicotine delivery systems in the vocalisation of concerns concerning tobacco-related death and disease."

"There isn’t any evidence that vaping is safe. On the other hand, there is ample scientific evidence that vaping is NOT safe," he adds.

In Mamamia's The Quicky podcast, Dr Michelle Jongenelis from Curtin University spoke to host Claire Murphy about some of the prevalent long-term effects of vaping - which she says isn't surprising.

"We've known for quite some time about the short-term effects. We have been waiting for the long-term effects to start showing up," Dr Jongenelis said.

"We know from the short-term effects and for the chemicals that are in vapes, we were expecting this all along. It hasn't really come as a surprise that we're now getting respiratory diseases."

"We know that e-cigarettes contain materials that can cause cancer. We haven't yet seen any cancer cases that have been linked to this, but we are certainly seeing the respiratory diseases that are coming out from the US and also cardiovascular disease."

Can vaping help cigarette smokers to stop smoking?

While it may be portrayed as a product for ex-smokers as a way of harm reduction, there is limited evidence that e-cigarettes are actually effective in helping people give up smoking.

But according to experts, big tobacco companies are paying big in order to sway the argument. 

ADVERTISEMENT

"One of the concerns out there about the vaping industry is that they're paying academics to research e-cigarettes and not surprisingly, these academics are finding that these e-cigarettes aren't as harmful," Dr Jongenelis told The Quicky.

Sounds eerily similar to the illegal marketing campaigns by tobacco companies years back, no? The ones that promoted light and filtered cigarettes as posing a lower health risk?

Image: Getty 

"But if you look at the peer review literature that hasn't been funded by the vaping industry, where there's no conflict of interest, what you find is that there's actually that idea that it could help smokers and that it isn't harmful at all, has been completely debunked," said Dr Jongenelis.

"There is no evidence that vaping is a safer alternative for smoking cessation and should not be prescribed in medical practice," Dr Sohal said. 

"Emerging scientific evidence for vaping-induced lung disease is stronger than short-term behavioural whims. Cease smoking, cease vaping for true nicotine cessation and for healthier lungs."

It makes sense that vaping can then essentially be seen as a gateway for young people to become addicted to nicotine.

Professor Bittoun said, "If you ask older smokers how old they were they started, they'll say around 12 to 14 - that's pretty common. They come to see me to help them quit and they're 60.

ADVERTISEMENT

"That's a whole career of spending money on a drug you want to stop using that's doing you incredible harm. And that's what's important about it - it's a new age of consuming that they're encouraging."

If you take a look at what's on the market right now, manufacturers have created an aesthetically pleasing offering that appeals to teenagers and younger adults. There are vaping devices that look like highlighter pens and USB drives, making them less conspicuous. 

Where can you buy e-cigarettes in Australia?

As far as e-cigarettes go, under existing state and territory laws in Australia we don't legally have access to nicotine-based e-cigarettes. However, as Professor Bittoun touched on earlier - this does not guarantee all e-cigarettes sold legally are nicotine-free.

The fact is that literally anyone can buy nicotine vapes sold on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.

According to the Daily Telegraph, a student at a Sydney school was recently suspended for using social media platforms to sell vapes to students across the eastern suburbs. 

"There is good strong evidence that unfortunately children's brains - which are still developing - they can get addicted to nicotine really quickly, literally within one usage," said Professor Bittoun.

"People don't realise children get a big effect from drugs, not a small one. I don't mean an emotional or psychological reaction, I mean a physiological one."

"The thing with nicotine is not only is that it hits you fast, but it wears off really quickly. It's one of the fastest acting drugs we've got. And it's the wearing off that's the downer. Kids are saying they can't concentrate in school anymore, that they have to go out and vape."

At the moment there are more than 4,000 of the e-liquids available in Australia. Experts are saying the fact that there isn't federal legislation is a cause for concern.

What is the government doing about it?

Paediatrician and MP for McArthur Dr Mike Freelander told the Quicky of the recommendations made at a recent enquiry into the safety of vaping. And it seems there's a lot of noise being made by lobbyists.

"There are lobbyists for the big tobacco companies like Philip Morris, there are some vaping groups - people who want free and open access, and there are some medical practitioners members who believe vaping as a way of harm reduction for people using cigarettes," said Dr Freelander.

"We've had a pretty open and extensive enquiry and we made some recommendations, yet the lobbying has continued. They're hoping that there will be free and open access to vaping and vaping materials and solutions in Australia over-the-counter to anyone who wants to use them."

ADVERTISEMENT

So, where does that leave us?

"What the majority found was that there is no reason to make nicotine solutions for vaping freely available in Australia. That vaping itself was not completely safe and there was very little attempt by the companies and the people promoting vaping to do research into the safety or otherwise of vaping," said Dr Freelander. 

"While there were some lobbying on the basis of harm reduction, the majority were lobbying for freer access for economic reasons."

Dr Sohal said there is a need for dedicated research funding into this area. 

"We need hardcore scientific research to further understand the contents used in these devices and their effects on lung health. It took us decades to understand the damaging effects of tobacco cigarettes, links to lung cancer and fibrosis, so let’s not get burned all over again!"

For Professor Bittoun, the motive is clear.

"If you think of the tobacco companies, this is ideal for them. It's a whole new group of consumers - for life."

What do you think about vaping? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty

 Like a $50 gift voucher for your thoughts? For your chance, take our quick survey . 

MMSurvey