The Great American Vapeout

Since 1976, the American Cancer Society (ACS) has declared the third Thursday of November as the Great American Smokeout. Setting aside this day for cigarette smokers to quit or develop a plan to quit tobacco has proven to be a cruicial step towards thousands of healthier lives.

The work done by the American Cancer Society to push a clear, powerful message about the negative effects of cigarette use has led to millions of Americans opting out of smoking. Unfortunately, as cigarette use has steadily declined, it has now given rise to a dangerous trend that millions are now opting in to—vaping.

What is Vaping?

Vaping refers to the use of any electronic vaporizer, including E-cigs, Vapes, E-hookahs, mods, tanks and vape pens. The devices are battery-powered and used to heat a liquid “juice” to create a vapor. The juice typically contains water, vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol and some amount of nicotine.

When the juice mix is heated, it produces a group of compounds known as carbonyls. These carbonyls include carcinogenic poisons such as formaldehyde, acetone and butanol. If you’ve heard of any of these, you’ll likely think of some common things they’re found in, such as embalming fluids, nail polish remover and gasoline.

“Vaping use has grown at an alarming rate over the last five years with our youth being at the helm. In fact, the use of e-cigarettes is higher among high school students than adults,” says Kim Noble, RN and program coordinator for South Shore Health’s Youth Health Connection. “Because an adolescent’s brain continues to develop until about 25 years old, nicotine exposure during these crucial years not only leads to addiction, but also to harming the brain’s natural development,” she warns.

It’s the growing rate of vaping that seems to be keeping teen tobacco use stable. What’s more alarming, teens who vape may become cigarette smokers. A recent study found that nonsmoking teens who start vaping are three times as likely as non-vapers to later smoke cigarettes. This was true even for teens who weren’t risk-takers or rebellious and would have seemed the least likely to start smoking.

Is Vaping Safer than Smoking?

The more scientists continue to learn about vaping and its impact on human health, the more complicated the picture becomes. While cigarettes generally produce a thousand times more carbonyls because of the combustion process, vaping devices produce a varying amount depending on the ratio of glycol to glycerin in the vaping fluid and how much of it is heated. Some newer, variable voltage vape models even allow users to increase the temperature of the heating element to deliver more nicotine.

One thing is certain: the perception that using a smokeless device carries little risk is false. Both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) warn of the potential for nicotine addiction and poisoning, and believe the devices should be more tightly regulated. Both organizations feel the safety of vaping is "illusive," since the ingredients they contain are not always disclosed and there is not adequate data on emissions. What's more, when it comes to helping people quit smoking, the science is mixed.

Karin A Sloan, MD, pulmonologist at South Shore Medical Center recognizes that one of the biggest concerns with vaping is the long-term consequences for someone, even someone who stops inhaling cigarette tars and just inhales e-liquid nicotine.

“Regardless of the arguments many present for turning to vaping over smoking cigarettes, vaping still allows substances into your lungs that are not meant to be inhaled,” she said. “While it’s impossible to know all the chemicals contained in e-liquids, some of these chemicals we do know about, have been found to be cancer-causing, in addition to putting users at a higher risk of pulmonary disease and heart disease—just like regular cigarettes.”

Vaping Devices and Drug Use Beyond Nicotine

Because it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s inside someone’s vape, more and more young people are using these devices to vape other harmful substances like marijuana, LSD and cocaine. It could also be the vehicle to store a deadly concoction of unknown chemicals, known as synthetic drugs.

“Parents, caregivers and educators need to be aware of the dangers these devices present. Beyond the known dangers of nicotine addiction and the health hazards that come with that and carbonyls, more vaping devices are compatible with THC liquids, making substance abuse easier and less publicly recognizable for teens and young adults,” warns Kim Noble. “Furthermore, the devices’ lack of transparency creates a danger for users who may not be completely aware of what’s inside the device.”

Jason Tracy, MD, Chair of Emergency Medicine at South Shore Hospital has already seen an uptick in trauma patients associated with illicit substance use, including underage use of marijuana.

“As Southeastern Massachusetts’ only Level II Trauma Center, we already see trauma patients from car accidents, many caused by drivers using opioids and alcohol. Legal marijuana will only increase this number,” Dr. Tracy says. “I’m concerned that having vaping devices easily accessible to our youth—devices that easily hide illegal drug use—will only increase these visits.”

Keeping yourself current on accurate information is worthwhile so that you can be a trusted source of information for youth. Have conversations with adolescents and children about the risks of vaping—especially at a young age, is important to keeping an open dialogue.

It's time to recognize that vaping is not a "healthy" way to use tobacco. This year, consider using the Great American Smokeout as your own Great American Vapeout.