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Electronic cigarettes: A step to quitting smoking or another unhealthy alternative?

Oct 10, 2018
By Alexandra Hobson

Whether at a party or walking down the street, vaping has been on the rise as an alternative to smoking. Some people choose to vape thinking it’s a healthy alternative, while others are simply following a new trend. No matter the reason, it’s important to make sure those who vape have the right information about the potential health consequences of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes.

What are vaping and e-cigarettes?

The term “vaping” refers to e-cigarettes, which are battery-operated electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS). While traditional cigarettes burn tobacco and generate smoke, e-cigarettes heat a liquid containing nicotine and other components to produce an aerosol (often mistaken for vapor) that the user inhales.

How common are e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes have become increasingly popular due in part to the perception that they’re a healthier alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes. This has led many current smokers to vape as a way to stop smoking.

According to the CDC, in 2016, 3.2% of U.S. adults were current users. In 2015, over half of e-cigarette users also were regular cigarette smokers, just under a third were former cigarette smokers, and about 11% had never been regular cigarette smokers.

One of the more alarming things about e-cigarettes is their popularity among young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), young Americans are more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults. In 2016, over 2 million U.S. middle school and high school students had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days — including 11.3% of high school students and 4.3% of middle school students. And while many adult e-cigarette users were either current or former cigarette smokers, 40% of people 18 to 24 had never been regular smokers prior to using e-cigarettes.

Is vaping bad for you?

Because vaping is a relatively new trend, its effects haven’t been studied extensively. There have yet to be studies done to show the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes, but there is evidence that smoking e-cigarettes has fewer risks than smoking conventional cigarettes since there is no tobacco exposure. However, e-cigarettes do still contain nicotine and other added components that can be harmful.

Here’s how some of those can affect your health:

Nicotine. Nicotine is highly addictive, a health danger for pregnant women and their developing fetuses, and harmful to adolescent brain development.

Flavorings such as diacetyl. Diacetyl is linked to severe respiratory issues and a serious and irreversible lung disease called obliterative bronchiolitis.

Cancer-causing chemicals and ultrafine particles. While regular cigarettes have more of these harmful substances, e-cigarettes contain them as well.

Public health concerns

Youth risk

E-cigarettes, especially flavored ones, may potentially be a gateway drug to cigarettes for young people. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a study showed that those who started using e-cigarettes by the time they were in 9th grade were at risk for using cigarettes and other smokable tobacco products. The U.S. Surgeon General is encouraging parents, educators, and policymakers to take steps to discourage the use of e-cigarettes.


From 2010 to 2015, there was on average one call per month to the poison control center after a child ingested the vaping liquid with side effects being vomiting, nausea, and eye irritation.

Secondhand smoke

The U.S. Surgeon General has concluded that secondhand smoke from e-cigarettes can be harmful, as it exposes those nearby to nicotine and other added chemicals such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and other toxins. However, there are less of these harmful substances in secondhand smoke from vaping than from cigarettes. The American Lung Association supports banning e-cigarettes in worksites and public places.

Fire and explosion

While rare, there have been instances of e-cigarettes starting fires and exploding, typically due to faulty lithium ion batteries. According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Fire Administration, the U.S. media documented 195 explosions and fires involving e-cigarettes from January 2009 to December 31, 2016. These incidents resulted in 133 injuries, with 29% of those being severe. In addition, 62% of the explosions and fires occurred when the e-cigarette was either in a pocket or actively in use — causing devastating and life-altering injuries in some cases.

Are e-cigarettes recommended as a way to quit smoking?

Currently, e-cigarettes are not approved by the FDA as a method to quit smoking and there are no studies showing the effectiveness or safety of e-cigarettes for this purpose. If you or someone you know wants to stop smoking, talk to a primary care provider to discuss appropriate options.

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Alexandra Hobson, One Medical Provider

Alexandra Hobson is a Family Nurse Practitioner that works at One Medical and has a passion for public health. She has a history of working in primary care at the San Francisco Veterans Hospital and other primary care practices for the past 7 years prior to working at One Medical. She has developed a passion over these years for addressing public health needs to help prevent poor health outcomes in primary care. She currently lives in San Francisco in the Bernal Heights neighborhood with her husband, baby, and dog. She enjoys traveling, being outdoors, spending time with friends and family, and when she has time loves to paint and make ceramic sculptures.

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