Smoking is one of the unhealthiest habits we know. It can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, several cancers, and much more. It is also expensive and increasingly, stigmatised and or marginalised through a range of laws and rules. Almost 80% of smokers want to quit, understandably enough.

In recent years vaping and the use of e-cigarettes has become quite widespread. For clarity, we consider vaping to include the use of vape-pens, vape-machines (disposable and non-disposable) and “hubbly-bubbys” . Where smoking involves the burning of tobacco to release nicotine and other substances), vaping involves the heating of liquids to release nicotine (and other substances including flavourings) in a vapour (hence “vape” and “vaping”). This heating process is generally considered less harmful than the burning involved in cigarette smoking. There is no smoke produced from vaping (a vapour or “cloud” is often produced but it is not smoke, and it does not usually smell). So, is this a good and positive and healthy trend? The answer is complex and not yet definitive in several areas, but we can say this:

  • Smoking cigarettes involves thousands of harmful chemicals. Vaping almost certainly involves fewer harmful chemicals. But not NO harmful chemicals. Vaping still produces nicotine (in most cases), the major harmful chemical associated with tobacco. And it produces many other chemicals, many of which are poorly studied and largely unknown. Vaping has been linked with lung damage and even though this may be somewhat less severe that is seen with smoking, it is still concerning.
  • Vaping is a new thing that has not yet been fully understood and or studied. Rather like smoking was a century or more ago (there was a time when the damage done by smoking was not understood nor widely accepted), there is something new and unknown here. That means it is risky, even if we do not yet fully understand the degree and nature of the full risk.
  • Vaping is addictive. It seems from the research done so far, that vaping nicotine (which is what most people do) is roughly as addictive as smoking cigarettes for nicotine. This is a major concern since it is well known that nicotine is about as addictive as heroin or cocaine.
  • Vaping is easier than smoking. There is less social and legal stigma. It may be less expensive in some cases. It has a “cool factor” that smoking does not really have these days.
  • Vaping may be becoming “the new smoking” in the sense that many young people who are non-smokers, do become vapers. We may be seeing the creation of a whole new form of harmful addiction. Having started to win the war (in some parts of the world anyway) against smoking, vaping may be a whole new battle and new enemy (to wellbeing).
  • Vaping sometimes involves THC (the main psychoactive chemical from cannabis), which is another addiction.
  • Some vape-products are unregulated and uncontrolled. This is especially true of THC-containing products but also applies to general (non-THC) vaping. These products may well include very harmful substances (e.g. vitamin E acetate, a substance thought to cause a specific form of lung damage and associated with some THC-containing vape products), which we know little about. Vapers should try to use products from trusted suppliers who list all ingredients and substances. Even then, there are still risks.
  • While vaping has been shown to be helpful in those trying to quit smoking, it is not the only helpful approach, and it is not even the most helpful approach. Several proven approaches can help quitters. All quitters are encouraged to seek medical help to improve the odds of success. Even if vaping is part of the quitting strategy, it should ideally be seen as a temporary measure and not as a long-term replacement for cigarettes.

Vaping may well be helpful for quitters. It may well be less harmful than smoking. But it is not without downsides. There is addiction. There is damage. There are unknowns. There are risks. Real caution is advised and at the very least vapers should understand the possible and likely consequences associated with their choices.

Written by Dr Colin Burns