Vaping and E-cigarettes: The Path to, or from, Smoking?

By David Wang

The student slouches in his seat at the back of the room, eyes drifting guiltily, looking both ways. The teacher looms at the front of the classroom, a symbol of the educational institution oppressing him. When the teacher’s back is facing him, he whips out a glossy e-cigarette, barely the size of his hand. The itch of a nicotine high nags him, and he raises his hand in the middle of class, asking to use the restroom. He locks himself in a stall, indulging in the crave of a nicotine high combined with fragrant flavoring.
This narrative might be all too familiar to high school students across the country. In a generation in which traditional cigarettes have been vilified by ads depicting lungs filled with tar and showing the drastic before-and-afters of smoking, it’s no surprise smoking has declined significantly among teenagers in recent years. According to the National Institute of Health, the number of teens who report having smoked cigarettes has fallen to 4.2% in 2017 from a high of 28% in 1997, and continues to drop a few percentage points each year. Vaping has seen a considerable uptick since it originated in 2003; about 27.8% of high school students now report that they vape on a regular basis. Due to this, many experts are now beginning to worry about the potential short-term and long-term safety concerns that e-cigs may cause.
Most electronic cigarettes consist of a battery to power a coil which, when heated, vaporizes a dense liquid. This e-liquid usually consists of water (moisturizer), nicotine, propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin (used to create smoke), and flavor additives.
A Silicon Valley offshoot of PAX Labs, JUUL Labs have created an iconic product at the very forefront of vaping, the JUUL, a universally used and recognized e-cigarette. The JUUL and many other e-cigs were originally marketed as an alternative means of quitting smoking cigarettes, allowing users to soothe their nicotine addiction in a more socially acceptable way. However, it has found popularity among teenagers in recent months with its appealing design, a slim, rectangular closed system vaporizer and a variety of separate flavor pods (such as creme brulee, cool mint, fruit medley, mango…), each lasting about 200 puffs. The appeal of the JUUL also comes from its relatively cheap prices, with a JUUL device, USB charger, and 4 pods costing $49.99, and four pods of any flavor costing $15.99.
Part of the health concerns from vaping arise from the fact that it is commonly perceived as benign by its users, who claim that there are no immediate health concerns. However, issues arise in manufacturing impurities of heating coils and production of e-cig liquid. When the Center for Tobacco Research and Education tested e-cigarette vapor from popular brands, they found nine additional carcinogens and reproductive toxins in both mainstream and secondhand smoke. Researchers are also concerned with the addictive dopamine pathway, stimulating the brain with an addictive happiness followed with a “crash,” causing the user to seek more nicotine. This pathway is directly associated with nicotine consumption, which can be initiated a mere seven seconds after inhalation of nicotine. Researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse studied the effects of nicotine on the adolescent prefrontal cortex, a developing part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and self-control, concluding that additional dopamine receptors had been created in response to the excess nicotine.
Additional concerns have been raised about vaping being a “gateway” to traditional cigarettes and other drugs, stimulating similar dopamine pathways. A South student says that he “is thinking of maybe smoking traditional cigarettes as the craving [from vaping] can be pretty bad, and I’m considering smoking marijuana and moving to harder drugs.” Samir Soneji, a professor at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, lead a study that found that a startling number of teens transitioned from vaping to cigarettes—as many as 81 times more adolescents moved on to a regular smoking habit after vaping than cigarette-smoking adults who were able to quit their smoking habit with e-cigarettes. Statistically, the chance of quitting vaping is stacked against the vaper – according to CDC studies, only 6% of nicotine users manage to quit every year.
Though no administration can fully regulate the behind-the-scenes vaping in bathroom stalls, backs of classrooms, or just outside of school, additional educational preventative measures need to be implemented. The facade of sleek designs, attractive flavorings, and implicit social pressures often obscure the sinister side effects of the habit and eventual lifestyle. If more and more unaware teens choose to puff from that seemingly harmless vape, the public health battle of an entire generation will have been lost.