I know there’s a community out there touting the benefits of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs (also called vaping). No one can deny that the e-cig industry is expanding and expanding. Although everything I’ve read stops short of calling them a healthy alternative to smoking, the overall tone indicates that e-cigs may be a better alternative to tobacco – may help you quit smoking, may lower your exposure to nicotine, and eliminates everyone’s exposure to second-hand smoke with the ultimate goal of quitting altogether. If that’s the purpose of e-cigs, count me in.
So what’s the problem? Quit smoking, less nicotine, and no one gets second-hand smoke. Am I missing something?
A definite Yes! Pop into your local “vapor” store and you’ll see all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors of what are basically nicotine delivery systems. Now, the latest thing – flavors. Yes, flavors. Now, you can get a quick fix of nicotine AND enjoy any number of different flavors to enhance your vaping experience. (But I thought the goal was to quit using them altogether, so why are they being made more appealing?)
Now, the hidden problem. Some of the flavors have been identified as potentially hazardous. That’s right – potentially hazardous. Remember the “buttery” flavoring on microwave popcorn? It’s a chemical called diacetyl which was attributed to a condition called Popcorn Lung. Popcorn Lung is known in the medical community as obliterative bronchiolitis (OB) which is a serious, irreversible lung condition. The concern was with the workers breathing diacetyl and complaints of lung maladies. The concern prompted NIOSH1 to investigate and ultimately publish an alert, NIOSH Alert: Preventing Lung Disease in Workers Who Use or Make Flavorings.
But wait. Aren’t we talking about intermittent exposure in an e-cig rather than continuous exposure like in a factory? Absolutely. However, by inhaling the e-cig vapor, you are inhaling the flavoring chemicals directly into your lungs. Granted, NIOSH does state that more research is needed to establish a causal link between diacetyl and OB. However, NIOSH also makes a rather compelling case for this causal link. At least, we need to take a closer look.
Another concern. Diacetyl and other diacetyl-like chemicals are found in flavorings other than just “buttery” flavoring. The Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health published a study1 in December 2015 in which diacetyl or diacetyl-like compounds were found in 47 of 51 flavors tested (the flavors tested were fruit, candy, and cocktail flavors). Again, they aren’t claiming that diacetyl and diacetyl-like compounds are harmful, just that they are in more than just “buttery” flavoring.
To sum this all up, if you’re looking for a definite conclusion, there isn’t one. At best, it’s a definite maybe. If you’re using e-cigs to wean off of nicotine and eventually get off of nicotine entirely, then great, and count me in. However, if you’re using e-cigs as a way of “smoking” without the tobacco, count me out.
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
- Allen JG, Flanigan SS, LeBlanc M, Vallarino J, MacNaughton P, Stewart JH, Christiani DC. Flavoring Chemicals in E-Cigarettes: Diacetyl, 2,3-Pentanedione, and Acetoin in a Sample of 51 Products, Including Fruit-, Candy-, and Cocktail-Flavored E-Cigarettes. Environ Health Perspect; http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1510185