Everywhere you look, there’s a new one, and every one seems to have a catchy new name. E-vape, EZ-cig, vapor haven: Electronic cigarette stores are almost as prevalent as Tim Hortons or Starbucks, and offering an equally legal buzz. It’s the hottest thing since the Marlboro Man, and it’s popular with everyone from teens to geriatrics: the electronic cigarette. But what risks does vaping really pose, and should we be concerned about our children getting ahold of what may be the latest drug-delivering craze?
Smoking electronic cigarettes or “vaping” first became popular in 2012, with about 10 percent of American high school students having tried the new nicotine-delivery method since that year. Around 3.4 percent of adults had tried them by 2013, but that number continues to rise, fueled by their ready availability.
The risks of electronic cigarette use is still uncertain. The battery-powered vaporizer uses a heating element, or atomizer, that vaporizes e-liquid, which is usually flavored and contains a mixture of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and can contain nicotine, much like regular cigarettes.
A preliminary analysis of the vapor by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 2009 identified that some contain tobacco-specific nitrosamines, or cancer-causing agents, on par with nicotine gum. That study also found diethylene glycol, a known poison, and some samples have been found to contain anabasine, myosmine and nicotyrine, known to be harmless to humans. While these were found in trace amounts, the FDA is also suspect about widely varying nicotine content in e-cigarettes, as well as the variability in types and quality of vaporizers, as well as concentration and quality, meaning a variable amount of aerosol can be inhaled, depending on the device and type of vapor.
Additionally, the FDA said that, since e-cigarettes have not been around long enough to have been used for long periods of time it’s impossible to tell how safe they are, in the long-term.
The risks to the lungs are still not understood, and some reviewers said that, while propylene glycol and other chemicals that are used as compounds in the vapor are generally considered safe, they have not been used in vaporized form over long periods.
In the United States, the number of cases of accidental nicotine poisoning associated with e-cigarette vapor rose from one per month in September 2010 to 215 per month in February 2014, and calls to poison control centers related to vaping rose from .3 percent in September 2010 to 41.7 percent in February 2014. More than half of those calls involved children younger than 5 years old who had gotten ahold of the devices.
Many workplaces have banned vaping indoors or on company property, similar to bans on conventional cigarettes or other tobacco products, often because of the potential risks of second-hand vapor. The FDA found that second-hand vapor from e-cigarettes may contain known carcinogens, ultrafine particles and heavy metals, similar to conventional cigarettes.
And while advertising for conventional cigarettes is highly regulated, it seems e-cigarettes hardly need the help. Sales of convenience-store e-cigarettes went down for the first time ever during the four-week period ending May 10, because, according to Wells Fargo, consumers are buying the more specialized devices often found in stand-alone vape stores, which are now growing twice as fast as traditional electronic cigarettes. These account for a third of what has become a $2.2 billion market.
While a stigma has developed around smoking traditional cigarettes over the past decade, largely due to increased education about the health risks associated, vaping is growing as a not only an alternative to cigarettes, but a completely separate hobbyist culture. Among the emerging “vaping community,” convention-type gatherings are held to trade vaping secrets, collect types of e-cigarettes and display handmade vessels that do not resemble cigarettes at all. Many of these are highly-specialized tools that can include a higher-powered battery or more concentrated liquid.
Vaping is currently at the same place where cigarette smoking may have been in the 1960s, wherein the health risks are beginning to be examined, while the popularity remains at a steady high, and even growing. But while the experts continue to look at the health and safety risks of vaping, some schools are talking about the issue, as a disciplinary concern.
Eden Central School, at its reorganization meeting this week, considered a revised policy on e-cigarette use, which would allow teachers and administrators to confiscate and keep e-cigarettes. The current policy allows the devices to be returned.
Superintendent Sandy Anzalone raised the issue, and the board discussed adding punishments that may include suspension of up to five days, detention and loss of privileges, including extracurricular activities.
To date, more than five students have been suspended for possessing the devices.
The problem, Eden officials noted, is finding the students who are vaping on school property, since the vapor they emit does not trigger smoke alarms. Many students use them in bathrooms, where it is easier for them not to get caught.
The board likened e-cigarettes to conventional cigarettes or other tobacco-delivery products, which are also not allowed on school grounds, particularly since it is illegal for children to purchase them. In 2013, local law 1399 also banned electronic cigarette sales to minors, according to the national council of state legislatures.
But what about adults, who are free to smoke legal tobacco-delivery systems of any kind, as they see fit? Some vape community members and enthusiasts take issue with banning the devices, since there is not yet any scientific evidence that the devices are harmful.
“Here we have an example of unsound science or no science being used to justify an extreme restriction on people’s freedom that will harm others,” Julian Morris told Newsweek. Morris is founder of the libertarian magazine Reason, which co-organized a vape-in protest in New York City in April, the night the city banned vaping indoors. “There’s a certain amount of anecdotal evidence that people are using vaping devices to quit smoking. By banning the use of vaping devices, the consequence will almost certainly be that more people will continue to smoke,” he said.
The vaping community has held these vape-ins across the country, wherever bans are being enacted, and has also organized lobbying efforts and activism at the local, state and federal levels.
Many vaping enthusiasts feel so strongly about their right to use these devices because they say they have helped them quit nicotine permanently, since e-cigarette juice can be purchased sans the addictive chemical.
“They make this out to be a bad thing when there really isn’t a lot of information,” said on vape enthusiasts, in the same article. “It’s really been a shoot first, ask questions later situation.”
Locally, there is at least a large handful of vape stores in Hamburg and Blasdell, without getting into the outer suburbs. These stores sell everything from the basic e-cigarette models to the fancier, more expensive devices that look more like what the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland puffed on than anything we know as a cigarette. And the juice? It comes in every flavor from vanilla to wild berry to mint, with and without nicotine. Many of these stores hold events to draw customers and other enthusiasts, creating a culture that mimics the cigar parlors and lounges that are slowly disappearing across Western New York. Is it a matter of one smoky hobby replacing another, as time and technology advance, or is vaping a separate undertaking altogether? While vaping’s efficacy as a smoking cessation method has been neither disproved nor endorsed by the FDA, many swear by it as a lifesaver. Others say they prefer vaping to cigarettes because it is more socially acceptable; for now, anyway. Still others say they picked up the hobby as a way to get a more flavorful, fun smoking experience, whether or not they had a pack-a-day habit, to begin with. And as the places a person can vape dwindle state and nation-wide, the community has to decide how much civil disobedience it is willing to undertake, in the name of juice.
One thing, however, everyone seems to agree on: Tobacco-delivery systems are not for kids.
Eden Central School will vote officially in August, after which the district has to decide exactly how they plan to enforce the ban. Many other schools around the area have taken similar action, in an effort to protect kids from nictoine addiction, in all forms. It has always been the parental instinct to protect children from the unknown. Vaping, in recent years, is just one of the latest unknown methods of delivering potentially harmful substances to young bodies. Lock up the sudafed. Hide the robitussin. Keep the glue and aerosols in a safe place and now, watch out for suspicious steam coming from the bedroom. Is vaping akin to smoking a pack of reds behind the dumpsters, like so many did back in the day? Maybe, maybe not. Time and research will tell. But for now, while the scientists figure out exactly what we’re doing to our bodies when we suck on yet another smoking stick, some schools think they’re better safe than sorry.