Vaping: How Dangerous in Practice?

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By Francisca van der Merwe

This article was originally published in the print Edition 1 of VARSITY. 


“Vaping” refers to the use of an electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) in a similar way to a normal cigarette. Vaping works by the vaporisation of nicotine in different amounts, at times containing zero nicotine, with the help of vaporising solvents, such as glycerol or propylene glycol. This is then inhaled along with flavouring, of which a wide variety is available. Many other substances may be present in an e-cigarette and may hold new risks to the user.


How common is the use of e-cigarettes? The 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that in the United States, 27.5 % of high school learners and 10.5% of middle school learners were vaping at the time of the survey. This compares to 5.8% of high-school learners and 2.3% of middle-school learners that self-reported cigarette smoking. An important question to ask is what the risks associated with e-cigarettes are, what effect it has on the body, and whether it is a pathway to smoking cigarettes.


Looking at the individual risk, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine did a systematic review and found good evidence showing that vaping causes cells lining blood vessels to function abnormally, increases heart rate, leads to the formation of particles that damage body tissues and that some of the chemicals in e-cigarettes injure and mutate DNA. In addition to these risks, amongst many others, e-cigarettes were also found to be capable of exploding, which could cause harm and burns to individuals.


People may think that e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes as they may be perceived to contain less nicotine, but is this really the case? The World Health Organization Q&A Detail on E-cigarettes states that, shockingly, some e-cigarettes that have been labelled nicotine-free, do actually contain nicotine. Nicotine, which is found in e-cigarettes in different amounts, is an extremely addictive drug with detrimental effects to your health. The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), in a campaign against tobacco, reports that e-cigarettes are even more dangerous to individuals under 25, as at this time their brains are not fully developed, and they may be more likely to become dependent. Despite these risks found, the vaping industry may use the claim that e-cigarettes are a healthy alternative to smoking, as a means of advertising their product.


When looking at the individual health risks associated with burning tobacco, the usage of e-cigarettes to step down from smoking regular cigarettes should theoretically lower a person’s health risk as e-cigarettes do not burn tobacco. Through systematic review, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, however, found limited proof overall that e-cigarettes are an efficient way to stop smoking. On top of this, a study found that adolescents that reached the legal age to buy cigarettes and started smoking, were six times as likely to have been exposed to e-cigarettes than those not exposed. The risk to the population is that one does not want to have more people that are addicted to nicotine at the end of the day, be it by means of vaping or smoking. The current lack of regulation around e-cigarettes may worsen the problem.


The government currently has produced the Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill of 2018. The aim of the Bill is to have better regulation over smoking, over the advertising and packaging of both vaping and smoking products, as well as to set a standard for the production and export of these products and to better regulate access to these products, such as, amongst others, to ban the sale of these products to individuals younger than 18 years old. Having this Bill come into action, may help to prevent the population risk associated with the use of e-cigarettes, as it will then be regulated in tobacco products.

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