e-cigarettes and vaping

Vaping is seen by some as a safer alternative to smoking. But does the evidence suggest this is true?
Vaping young man

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are a new product. They are a refillable device which heats a fluid to create a water-based vapour which is inhaled (vaping). The vapour includes flavouring and a variable amount of nicotine, ranging from zero nicotine to almost double the nicotine in a standard cigarette. 

Based on current evidence, they are less harmful to health than cigarettes. But cigarettes are very harmful to health. Half of all smokers will die from causes related to their smoking.  

Vaping and e-cigarettes still expose your lungs to health risk. This risk can be very serious. This risk is worse if you are vaping very heavily or regularly, using modified or home-made vaping kit or fluid, or using vaping as a way of taking drugs. Damage to the lungs can cause serious injury, permanent disability and death.

Instant expert: A recent study showed that young vapers who used higher nicotine content fluids were more likely to carry on and increase both vaping and smoking cigarettes, suggesting that low or zero nicotine concentrations are a safer choice.

What the law says

Shops are not allowed to sell vaping products to under 18s. If adults buy vaping products for under 18s, they are breaking the law. If companies or shops are found to be supplying vape products to children, then they can be prosecuted, fined and even shut down.

When you are over 18, laws restrict how much fluid you can buy and how high the nicotine content is. These laws are designed to protect health and prevent accidental poisoning of pets or children.

Crucial: It is still illegal for children (anyone under 18) to buy a vaping device, even if they pair it with 0% nicotine vape fluid.

Nicotine and developing brains

Because e-cigarettes are a new product, no-one knows exactly how serious the health risks are. But unless the vaper is reliably and always smoking 0% nicotine fluids, they will be exposed to nicotine.

Nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs, and the effects seem to be particularly serious for teenagers - especially those who smoke early and often. Although vaping is safer than smoking, if the fluid contains nicotine then there are risks:

  • Addiction - nicotine is very addictive
  • Side effects - these vary from person to person, the most common is a sore throat or cough
  • Changes to the developing brain - nicotine makes changes to the brain that can cause problems with learning, mood regulation, and make you more vulnerable to depression

Nicotine habits are quick to form and hard to break.

Instant expert: Want to know more about the effects of nicotine on the teenage brain? Science News for Students has made this Explainer: the nico-teen brain

Do e-cigarettes help you give up smoking?

Last Stoptober, for the first time, e-cigarettes were promoted as a great way to help smokers quit smoking. For existing smokers, switching to vaping seems a healthier and safer choice:

  • Fewer cancer-causing chemicals enter the body
  • Less risk to friends and family from second-hand smoke
  • Cheaper and a lower risk of accidental fires

But there is some evidence that people who vape - especially younger vapers - may also start or increase smoking; and people who find vaping difficult or unsatisfying can be discouraged from quitting.

People who have successfully used e-cigarettes to give up smoking have this advice, to maximise your chances of success:

  1. Switch 100% to e-cigarettes, don't smoke and vape at the same time
  2. When you stop smoking you will get some side effects like headaches and cravings even if you vape - stick with it and these will pass
  3. If you're finding vaping irritates your throat or feels unsatisfying, talk to other vapers, or staff at a vape shop - lots of different mixes are available

Some people vape for a period of time, gradually reducing nicotine levels until they can quit, others switch to vaping, and continue to vape. But whichever you do, the health results will be worth it. And if vaping doesn't work for you, there are other kinds of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) to help you stop smoking, and you may be able to get some of these free from your doctor.

Instant Expert: Research suggests that long-term vaping or NRT is far safer than smoking, but smoking and vaping at the same time does not give you the same health benefits.

Do e-cigarettes encourage young people to start smoking?

Although lots of young people are curious about vaping, most will only try it a few times. But those who start to vape on a regular basis do seem to go on to try cigarettes too - though they may not become smokers.

Your risk of becoming a smoker is higher if:

  • Someone in your household smokes
  • Someone is supplying you with cigarettes
  • You have friends who smoke regularly

Other things protect against becoming a smoker, like doing regular sports or exercise and avoiding social situations where people smoke.

Instant expert: The University of Leeds did a study which aimed to find out if vaping encouraged young people to try cigarettes. They found the risk was present, but was modified by whether or not they had friends who smoked, a known risk factor for starting smoking. 

Vaping and taking illegal drugs

Vaping drugs such as cannabis is illegal in the UK. 

In America, where vaping cannabis is legal in some states, counterfeit vaping cartridges have been found to contain deadly contaminants including pesticides and hydrogen cyanide.

Vaping any illegal substance is extremely risky, and against the law.

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