Is Vaping an Epidemic in the Making?

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It’s become commonplace nowadays to have to walk through a cloud of scented vapor as you navigate a sidewalk, or to find that same cloud hanging over a business meeting or a social outing. Vaping has been used by adults as a means to quit smoking, but now these tobacco-free e-cigarettes are being puffed in alarmingly growing numbers. Amongst teenagers, it’s even worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaping rose by nearly 80 percent amongst high school students from 2017 to 2018. When it comes to this particular demographic, vaping isn’t a craze; it’s an epidemic.

A Growing Popularity 

Dominating this estimated $22.6 billion global industry is a sleek USB-like e-cigarette called the ‘Juul’. Partially owned by tobacco giant Altria, which also owns Marlboro and Virginia Slims, Juul currently retains a 75 percent share of the vaping market in the US. It has become the e-cigarette of choice, thanks to its sleek design and appealing flavors (cucumber, mango, mint, and even fruit medley for goodness’ sake). In fact, it’s become so popular as to merit the creation of its own verb – ‘juuling’ – and the hashtag #doitforjuul, which has been gaining traction on social media.

From a societal standpoint, vaping is so far removed from smoking that it might as well be on a different planet. Years ago, when I was a smoker, my friends and I kept extra hoodies in our cars to cover our hair when smoking so that our parents wouldn’t be able to detect the smell on us. As an added precaution, a friend of mine went as far as to wear gloves, even in sweltering temperatures. In those days, it took real effort and misplaced dedication to smoke – because it was a big no-no, we knew there would be hell to pay if we got caught. Today, it’s a totally different ballgame. Vaping is perceived as fun rather than “gross”. It’s become an amusing pasttime – irrespective of whether you’re a smoker or not.

For teenagers, it’s a social activity that makes them look cool in front of their peers. And thanks to its size and weight, hiding it (in their socks or sleeves, according to my teenage nephew’s intel) is easy, thereby making it a convenient habit to boot! Cool and convenient for teens, vaping has become a full-on addiction, with students raising their hands several times a day in class for a bathroom break just to take a hit. And because the cloud of vape dissipates right away, getting caught isn’t an issue.

Vaping is so addictive and so easily concealable that in 2018, in the US alone, 3.6 million middle school and high school students were vaping, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For adults who, for cultural reasons, have never felt comfortable puffing publicly, vaping is an attractive and increasingly popular proposition. Unlike smoking, it’s not a habit you have to constantly make excuses for. When vaping, you don’t get the dirty looks or the flapping hands of someone trying to wave off your smoke. Instead, vapers are looked at with interest and sometimes even admiration – you know, because they’re doing this to kick the habit. Well done you!

The fact that you can also vape indoors – well, that’s just icing on the cake. No wonder the estimated number of adults who vape is expected to reach almost 55 million by 2021, according to market research group Euromonitor.

Juul Sancar Game of Thrones
Photo: Courtesy of Vice

All of the Uncertainty

Another unsettling fact is that e-cigarettes remain unregulated in many parts of the MENA region. While the UAE legalized the sale of e-cigarettes in February, many of the products currently available on the market come from hard-to-verify sources, with some of them even being counterfeit versions of the Juul. It’s a generally accepted fact amongst vapers in the MENA region that most of the pods available here are not original ones, meaning that it’s impossible to know the quality of your e-liquid or e-juice (they typically consist of nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerine and flavorings) since their source is ambiguous at best.

As for what we do know about vapes, it’s somewhat discouraging. The FDA just announced that there may be a link between seizures and e-cigarettes, but they are unaware of the exact relationship between the two. “We want to be clear that we don’t yet know if there’s a direct relationship between the use of e-cigarettes and a risk of seizure. We can’t yet say for certain that e-cigarettes are causing these seizures,” said outgoing FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. The American Lung Association released a consensus study that reviewed over 800 different studies. Their findings made clear that vaping causes acute lung injury, and that there are “risks to those inhaling secondhand e-cigarette emissions, which are created when an e-cigarette user exhales the chemical cocktail created by e-cigarettes.”

The Problem with Nicotine 

We also know that vapes carry nicotine. A lot of it, apparently. The Juul, for example, carries one of the highest percentages of nicotine in its vapes. Each Juul cartridge – which lasts around 200 puffs – has as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes, while each pod carries approximately 20 cigarettes’ worth of nicotine, according to the Truth Initiative Organization.

Which begs the question: Is nicotine harmless?

While nicotine by itself won’t kill you, or cause cancer (although nicotine poisoning can cause seizures) in young people, nicotine can interrupt adolescent brain development. And when it comes to the heart, nicotine is a point of concern in people with cardiovascular disease, according to a 2016 review in the journal Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine.

There’s also the issue of nicotine being a highly addictive substance. It is at least as difficult to give up as heroin. Yes, you read that right. While there isn’t enough data yet on the adverse effects of vaping (or on whether it actually helps people quit smoking, as it claims to), the fact that nicotine is present in high quantities in e-cigarettes is a health hazard in itself. Nicotine withdrawal includes symptoms such as anxiety, depression, irritability, hunger, weight gain, nausea, and vomiting. And let’s face it: If you’re addicted to something, it interrupts your daily life and takes away your free will.

Those are very high stakes, wouldn’t you say?

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