Vaping is great; it helps smokers quit smoking. Vaping is terrible; it gets teens addicted to nicotine.
Therein lies the tension. The technology for vaping — inhaling nicotine from electronic cigarettes via vapor rather than actual smoke — was developed more than a decade ago as a quit-smoking aid. And according to its proponents, it can do wonders in that regard. Carrie Bertrand, the owner of two Vape Spot stores in Yakima, used vaping to quit smoking after 25 years. Her father, who had smoked for 45 years, turned her on to the idea after the new technology helped him quit.
“There is absolutely no looking back,” she said. “I have absolutely no side effects whatsoever. No coughing. No sore throat in the morning. There’s no shortness of breath.”
But studies conducted in the past two years have shown a surge in use among people, particularly teens, who were never regular cigarette smokers. While less than 2 percent of 12th graders smoked a half-pack per day in 2017 — a historic low according to the University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future study — 19 percent of them reported vaping nicotine within the past year.
“It’s like an epidemic,” Selah High School Principal Colton Monti said. “A lot of kids are experimenting with it, and there’s a lack of education around it. They don’t understand what they’re putting in their bodies.”
The relative newness of vaping means there isn’t much information on long-term health effects, though several studies have suggested they may not be as harmless as advertised. Researchers have found heavy metals, formaldehyde, arsenic, acetone and other ingredients in vape “juice” that didn’t list any of those things on the label, said Aaron Grigg, a Yakima Valley Farm Worker’s Clinic pediatrician who regularly discusses vaping with his school-age patients. He frequently hears from patients that they’re seeing more and more vaping at school, but he doesn’t believe they have much understanding of what’s in the vapor.
“It’s really underreported what else is contained in those vaping pens,” Grigg said.
Still, by all accounts, vaping is not as bad for people as smoking tobacco. Nicotine, while addictive, is not terribly harmful in and of itself; it’s the smoke that causes the lung and heart problems.
Those are the sort of factors David Eaton considered when he led an expert committee — convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine — through a study of more than 800 peer-reviewed studies to try to determine the relative benefits and risks of vaping. Eaton, a University of Washington environmental and occupational health sciences professor, ended up with a more nuanced view of vaping than is held by your average vape store owner or high school principal.
On balance, the development of electronic cigarettes or vape pens is probably a good thing, he said. Yes, they will get nonsmokers addicted to nicotine. But there’s evidence they also help smokers kick the cigarette habit.
“And even a modest reduction in that carries a significant public health benefit,” Eaton said. “It would be a tragedy if they were banned. My own opinion is that the intrinsic harm of these things is pretty low.”
That said, it’s not smart for nonsmokers to pick up vaping. Smoking rates were falling steadily before vaping was invented, and there’s some evidence that vaping might be a gateway to smoking for some current nonsmokers, Eaton said. Even if it isn’t, though, a nicotine addiction can be expensive and demanding.
“There is no benefit of these to kids,” he said. “They will become addicted, and there are downsides to that whether they do or don’t lead to smoking cigarettes. ... Why bother? There’s really nothing in it for you.”
Clearly there is some appeal, though. Online vape-discussion groups have proliferated over the past decade, and e-cigarette manufacturers have developed a whole array of flavored pods and juice cartridges. Teens see that or they see their classmates blowing big clouds of vapor and they’re drawn to it, especially because it doesn’t carry the yuck factor that tobacco does, said Nicole Patina, a Yakima Valley Farm Worker’s Clinic chemical dependency professional.
“It’s more acceptable,” she said. “It smells better, it tastes better. They have all these wonderful flavors. They have tutti-frutti and stuff that makes it fun.”
And, unlike traditional smoking, it’s easy to hide. The smell doesn’t linger, nor does the cloud. And vape devices, including the Juul brand ones that look like computer flash drives, aren’t as obvious as a pack of cigarettes.
“We often don’t catch it,” said Grandview School District Superintendent Kim Casey. “We don’t see it or smell it. It used to be pretty obvious. When you would see a package of cigarettes you would know something was wrong. But you could be looking through your child’s backpack and the vape pen, it looks like an ink pen.”
Given that, it’s important for parents to be vigilant about vaping, said Monti, the Selah High principal. He and teachers at the school used conferences this week to talk with parents about what to look for and what the dangers may be.
“We have great kids here at Selah High School,” Monti said. “I love our student body, and it worries me to see them making these choices.”