The topic of vaping and e-cigarettes is a heated one. The misleading statistic you may have read indicates that tobacco use in teens has declined each year for the last five years. In reality, the number of young people using e-cigarettes and hookahs tripled in 2016, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
The FDA recently released a study showing that of the 4.6 million youths who were using tobacco at the time of the survey, more than half were using e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that vaporize a solution containing nicotine that is inhaled.
Despite its highly addictive properties, nicotine liquid is unregulated. While the FDA regulates smoking cessation drugs and devices, such as nicotine patches and gum, nicotine itself is not a controlled substance.
To gain some insight into why kids are vaping, we sat down with music sensation and reality star Lil Niqo. As a spokesperson for the FDA's Fresh Empire program, an education campaign designed to prevent and reduce tobacco use among at-risk multicultural youth ages 12-17, Lil Niqo has a strong viewpoint on why kids should avoid vaping or other forms of nicotine consumption. Here are some highlights from our discussion.
Why do you think e-cigarettes and vaping have become so popular among young people?
Niqo: I think it's become a trend with young people because it's new, it's fresh and it’s convenient. This is the digital age and the millennials want to do whatever is new.
Studies show that inhaling hookah takes in five times the amount of nicotine as smoking a cigarette. Do you think kids are aware of this?
Some might know, but I don't think the majority have a clue. The few that do is because they've already tried nicotine, it already changed their mindset into thinking they’re getting "their fix.” It’s more important to them to feel that way than their health. I think it's crazy and most definitely not worth it.
Have you or any of your friends had issues stopping once they get started?
Honestly, no. My friends and I support a movement called FreshEmpire which vows to stay Tabacco free and live a FRESH lifestyle. I know other people though who have had a hard time kicking the habit. It’s addictive, and it gets harder over time I think.
How did you get involved in the smoke-free movement and what do you do to help?
I got involved with Fresh Empire when they invited me to be a part of it. They are very serious about it too. They did a background check on me to make sure I was truly tobacco-free. I passed it of course, but I liked that they are so interested in making sure the program is authentic. My first event with them was in Vegas, but I've done many more since then. I was really proud to learn that I brought the largest crowd in the history of the company. We got over 3,000 kids to pledge to be a part of the movement!
What do you think about the idea that smoking is a gateway drug and that it might lead to the use of more serious substances?
There is a saying that goes, "You never know until you try it" and it's true. You never know how much control a substance can have over you until you try it, and then you start to become curious about other drugs and what effects they have. That's why it's best to stay away from it all together.
What would you tell kids who are interested in vaping but haven’t started?
Don't think about what you're doing now in the moment, but think about your future. Picture yourself ten years from now and what it will mean if you start vaping. Look at the people you see already vaping. Read the reports see how many people get cancer. Look at the commercials with people with holes in their throats! Just avoid it.
What would you tell kids who are currently vaping and want to stop?
You've got to want to do it for yourself before anybody else. The choice is yours to make—make the right one for you and your health, even if it doesn’t seem to be the popular choice.
A Doctor Weighs In
Next, we chatted with John Maurice, MD, a thoracic surgeon and director of the Thoracic Oncology program at St. Joseph Hospital’s Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment in Orange, California. Dr. Maurice has treated many people who developed lung cancer from smoking. He’s also fielded a lot of questions about vaping. He shared his expertise on why these cigarette alternatives can still pose significant health risks.
How do e-cigarettes work?
E-cigarettes have quickly become popular with Americans across the country, especially younger people. They’re designed to satisfy a nicotine craving without delivering any tobacco. Most e-cigarettes use a liquid that is a mix of nicotine and other chemicals, and then heat the liquid until it becomes a vapor that can be inhaled. That’s why using e-cigs is also called “vaping.”
What are the dangers of vaping?
While e-cigarettes don't pose some of the health risks from tobacco products, they can still be very harmful to our health. And because they are nicotine-based, they are addictive just like cigarettes. Nicotine itself is a dangerous drug. While more research is needed, studies have shown that it can harm arteries, increase blood pressure, damage the developing brains of children, and present other health risks. And many e-cigarettes also use a mix of other dangerous chemicals.
A Harvard study found that a majority of e-cigarettes contain a chemical called diacetyl, which can harm our lungs, create scarring and even lead to potentially fatal cases of bronchitis. One of the biggest problems is that there isn’t yet a set of clear rules and standards for regulating the chemicals in these products or testing them, so it’s hard to know the risks of each kind of e-cigarette.
Another significant danger of e-cigarettes is the risk of lithium-ion batteries exploding and seriously injuring the user. This is such a concern that the U.S. Navy recently banned e-cigarettes from its ships, aircraft, boats, submarines, craft and heavy equipment.
Are e-cigarettes safer than cigarettes?
It’s true that smoking an e-cigarette is probably less harmful than getting your fix from the real thing. But a common misconception is that because e-cigs don’t contain tobacco, they’re safe. The truth is more complicated. E-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, so there is reduced risk of developing lung cancer and lung disease, bronchitis, and cardiovascular disease. But e-cigarettes contain their own potentially deadly chemicals, and because they’re packed full of nicotine, they’re hard to quit. Studies have also shown that people and especially teenagers who start by smoking e-cigarettes are much more likely to end up smoking conventional cigarettes. So the bottom line is that while e-cigarettes do not have some of the risks of traditional cigarettes, they can still be extremely harmful to your health.
Can e-cigarettes help you quit smoking?
That depends on each person. Some patients I work with have found that vaping does help them reduce their tobacco craving or even quit smoking cigarettes altogether. But e-cigarettes are not designed as a product for quitting smoking, and a lot of people are vaping and smoking cigarettes at the same time. If you’re trying to quit smoking, you should talk with your doctor about medications that can help you quit and quit for good.
How popular is vaping?
The United States Surgeon General actually issued a report at the end of last year showing how quickly vaping is becoming the drug of choice for so many people. The study showed that in 2015, 40 percent of high school students said they had tried e-cigs and 16 percent said they'd done so recently. Overall, 4.5 million U.S. teenagers smoke, with 3,000 teens picking up the habit every day. We all have a responsibility to talk with our kids and our friends about the risks of smoking and vaping.
It's incredible how popular vaping has become in such a short period. What's also remarkable is how much we still have to learn about the risks of vaping and the likelihood that people who vape – especially teens – will end up using traditional tobacco products. But here's what we know for sure: Nicotine and the other chemicals in e-cigarettes are harmful to your health. And they can put many people on the path to using tobacco later in life.
It’s so important that we all work to raise awareness of the risks of vaping. We need health organizations, advocacy groups and the government to continue studying the negative impacts of vaping, as well as the role of e-cigs as a “gateway” to tobacco and other drugs. The one thing we’re absolutely certain of is that the healthiest option is to avoid these products altogether.
To learn more about tobacco use, read these other blog posts:
Startling Stats about Kids and Vaping »
E-cigs Not Worth a Smoke Break »
Dissolvable Tobacco Looks Innocent, but It's Still Dangerous »
Think e-cigarettes are safe? New studies show vaping leads to diseases like oral cancer »
E-cigarettes: What parents should know »
Providence St. Joseph would like to thank Lil Niqo for being a paid partner with us on this important topic.
Providence is pleased to share the stories of great people who have overcome health conditions. As part of our population health program, we want to share insights and stories that help bring awareness to common health conditions. Not all the people featured in our stories are Providence patients.