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Romancing the Vape: Are E-Cigarettes Dangerous?

Are electronic cigarettes better than smoking, or are they even more dangerous?I just celebrated sixteen years as a non-smoker. It was St. Patrick’s Day, 1998, when I lit my last cigarette, got a headache, and decided I was done.

I started smoking my freshman year of high school. I was 13 years old, cigarettes were $.55 a pack, and I wanted to be like the cool kids. (I was also asthmatic, so I was an idiot, but such is youth.)

I loved smoking. I loved the smell, I loved the feeling of smoke going down my throat, I loved the taste, and I loved nothing more than the way it felt to smoke a cigarette after a good meal.

Yet, 16 years later, I still miss it. It’s because of this that I’ve eyed the rise in the popularity of e-cigarettes with great interest. The idea of participating in the ritual aspects of smoking, without the actual smoke damaging my lungs — I’ll confess, it’s enormously appealing. Add into that the fact that I’m working on losing weight, and nicotine is a fabulous appetite suppressant, and yes, I have found myself considering giving them a try more than once. But are e-cigarettes dangerous? It’s hard to say.

I’m not alone in thinking that smoking e-cigarettes — or, as it’s more commonly known, vaping (because smoking is bad, but vaping is just vapor) — looks like a good idea. But there’s a problem, of course. Unlike cigarettes, and even the earliest of the e-cigarettes that are sold as packs, e-cigarettes aren’t regulated in any way. This means you can “hack” your vaping mix until it contains massive and highly toxic levels of nicotine, using a refillable cartridge that allows you to mix up your vaping fluid yourself.

And to make it worse, the liquids that go into e-cigarettes are often brightly colored and flavored like candy (called, of course, e-liquids) — and yes, children are getting poisoned by ingesting e-liquids. Matt Richtel wrote in the New York Times:

“The surge in poisonings reflects not only the growth of e-cigarettes but also a shift in technology. Initially, many e-cigarettes were disposable devices that looked like conventional cigarettes. Increasingly, however, they are larger, reusable gadgets that can be refilled with liquid, generally a combination of nicotine, flavorings and solvents. In Kentucky, where about 40 percent of cases involved adults, one woman was admitted to the hospital with cardiac problems after her e-cigarette broke in her bed, spilling the e-liquid, which was then absorbed through her skin.”

In a recent article by Molly Osberg at the Verge, the rise of “vape culture” is discussed, highlighting a couple of key elements that make vaping incredibly appealing to teenagers and young people. The vaporizers “looked much more like an expensive piece of jewelry than a replacement for “analog” cigarettes,” and some of the stores selling e-liquids and vaporizers are catering to young people by highlighting the technological aspect of vaping, saying “White-walled and minimalist, with battery packs and slim e-cigs displayed on a wall behind glass, the shops looked more like Apple Stores than smoke shops.”

Of course, on a more positive note, vaping is also being used to help smokers quit smoking. From Eric Larson at Mashable:

“A hefty number of the shop’s customers come in looking for supplies for vaping pens or basic e-cigarettes. Those looking to quit smoking do so gradually. There are different milligram levels of nicotine the store uses to measure its cigarettes. Someone used to smoking a pack per day, for example, can start by smoking an e-cigarette with 24 milligrams of nicotine. They reduce the levels after a few days, to 18, to 12, to 6, and eventually to zero.”

Therein lies the rub, so to speak: there’s little doubt that vaping is less harmful than traditional smoking, although there is also little in the way of scientific research to back up that claim — or the claim of harm from vaping. But what isn’t in doubt is this: nicotine is addictive and can be toxic, and isn’t particularly safe to have in your house if you have young kids.

So I’m going to continue not smoking — and not vaping either. No matter how tempted I might be. I’m also going to begin discussing vaping with my daughter, and encouraging her to avoid it in the future. We just don’t know if e-cigarettes are dangerous, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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