The dangers of e-cigarettes: Experts warn against popular smoking alternative

E-cigarettes (shown above) have emerged in popularity in recent years as an alternative to conventional cigarettes. Experts warn against the health effects of e-cigarettes for young people. (Magda Abdi/ThreeSixty Journalism)
“What’s particularly concerning to me is the flavorings in the e-cigarettes. Just because something’s safe to eat doesn’t mean it’s safe to inhale.” —Dr. Thomas Kottke, HealthPartners

For young people who use e-cigarettes, it can start with a vape pen or a hookah pen.

Soon, experts say, they can be deep into the world of nicotine addiction.

E-cigarette companies market the product as a safer alternative to cigarettes, but experts say the product can still be harmful to young people’s health.

Companies attract young people to e-cigarettes by packaging them with tasty flavors such as watermelon and Pina Colada. But Dr. Thomas Kottke, a physician at HealthPartners, says that the flavoring in e-cigarettes also can be harmful because it can be unsafe to inhale and it hides the taste of nicotine.

“What’s particularly concerning to me is the flavorings in the e-cigarettes,” Kottke said. “Just because something’s safe to eat doesn’t mean it’s safe to inhale.”

E-cigarettes have emerged in popularity in recent years as an alternative to conventional cigarettes. More than 2 million middle and high school students were using e-cigarettes in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Spending for e-cigarette advertising has increased in the last six years, and nearly 70 percent of teenagers were exposed to e-cigarette advertising throughout various types of media and stores, according to the CDC.

Misinformation has plagued e-cigarettes, experts say. One side says they’re bad because they could carry the same risks as traditional cigarettes, while another side says they are harmless because they contain only water vapor. However, this is not the whole story.

E-cigarettes contain water vapor, yes, but they also contain nicotine, which can be highly addictive for young people, according to experts.

“It’s particularly harmful for youth,” said Chris Turner, program and media specialist for the Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota. “… It makes addiction stronger with nicotine when you start when you’re younger. And it makes it therefore harder to break.” 

Researchers know that e-cigarettes aren’t completely safe, but so far, they don’t know about the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes. One study this year found e-cigarettes to be safer than regular cigarettes. However, organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration have issued warnings against e-cigarettes.

“You do see short-term effects, like scarring on the lungs, but in terms of whether we can associate specific cancers with the use of these products, we don’t know yet,” said Grace Higgins, project coordinator at the Physician Advocacy Network at Twin Cities Medical Society. “That remains to be seen. But some of the chemicals that have found to be in e-liquids are known carcinogens.”

Higgins said these are the types of things that companies try to hide when marketing to young people. Companies use strategies such as sponsored posts on Instagram. Promotions such as Instagram giveaways require users to “like,” tag and repost in order to win vapes.

“They are really effective and smart at luring young people into an addiction, because then they have life-long customers,” said Higgins, who primarily works to educate physicians on e-cigarettes. “… That’s what we’re up against in terms of information.” 

But anti-smoking advocates are fighting back.

Chris Turner, program and media specialist for the Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota, which works with youth groups across Minnesota to discourage teenagers from using e-cigarettes and advocates for nonsmokers.

Turner and the Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota, which aims to reduce the number of young smokers in Minnesota and advocates for nonsmokers, works with youth groups across the metro area—as does the Physician Advocacy Network—in order to discourage teens from using e-cigarettes. The association has pushed local cities to ban e-cigarette use in places where regular cigarettes aren’t allowed. In 2014, Minneapolis banned public use of e-cigarettes in indoor spaces such as restaurants and offices.

Turner is hopeful that more communities will start to view e-cigarettes in the same way.

“The endgame is to eradicate smoking,” Turner said.

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