My son Evan recently told me that his friend Brent was smoking an e-cigarette in front of his mother.
“Brent’s mom lets her 14-year-old son smoke?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah, his mom thinks e-cigs will keep Brent away from cigarettes,” Evan replied.
I knew little about e-cigs then. However, Brent’s mom’s stance seemed downright Crazytown.
Or is it? If your recalcitrant teenager is bent on smoking, are e-cigs a healthier option than tobacco cigarettes? The answer is an equivocal maybe.
Over 200 e-cig brands are currently accessible to Canadians (including kids) online or in stores. Since the products are scantly regulated and under researched, health advocates question the safety claims of e-cig manufacturers.
Vapour cigarettes are another trade name for e-cigs. Teens also puckishly call them “e-hookas” and other drug culture nicknames. This is a glaring concern as such labels glorify drug use. Indeed, e-cigs can feasibly be loaded with hallucinogens.
Whatever the moniker, an e-cig is a battery-powered device that mimics tobacco smoking. It uses a heating element that vaporizes a flavoured liquid solution that usually contains nicotine.
E-cig makers claim their products are excellent smoking cessation aides and are harmless alternatives to cigarettes. Health officials fret the products are a gateway to cigarettes.
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief public health officer, claims it’s too early in the game to make the call.
“We must study e-cigs much more before we can make a definitive statement about them,” he says.
Since e-cigs have only been sold to Canadians for about seven years it’s difficult to judge potential health risks or if they’re a gateway to “real” smoking.
“One way e-cigs may be a gateway is they may normalize the act of smoking,” says Veda Peters, tobacco education coordinator at the BC Lung Association.
Veda worries making any smoking device seem “cool” again will eventually cause tobacco smoking rates, which have declined drastically in the past several decades, to spike.
E-cigs marketers do convey an innocuous “chill image”. Their devices come in fun flavours like mango and chocolate and flirty packaging without dire health warnings and scary graphics mandatory for tobacco containers. They’re also cheaper than cigarettes, further heightening their teen appeal.
E-cig celebrity users such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Katherine Heigl help puff up the products’ hip factor. And the first hit of an e-cig is literally a gas – a sweet tasting one at that.
“Teens begin their nicotine addiction with a pleasant, candied inhalation instead of a horrible first drag on a cigarette,” says Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer of the Victoria B.C.-based Island Health.
People also suck in propylene glycol, a poison found in antifreeze, while hauling on e-cigs. It’s uncertain if e-cigs include other dangerous additives since most are made in China where there’s no legal obligation to disclose their ingredients.
“Unless these products are regulated properly you won’t know what you’re putting in your lungs,” Dr. Stanwick cautions.
Can e-cigs help cigarette smokers quit? Dr. Strang says currently ungoverned e-cig companies can’t legally claim their devices are smoking cessation aides until they meet the same Health Canada guidelines as nicotine gums and lozenges.
Albeit e-cigs themselves may be addictive.“Safer doesn’t mean safe,” Veda says. “Whether your kids jump off the top stair or the bottom stair…they could still get hurt.”
What’s really inside?
E-cig manufacturers claim their products are benign cigarette substitutes. The inhalants themselves may be fairly innocent but innocent bystanders and e-cig users may be harmed in other ways.
A yummy poison: One “E-Juice” nicotine vial if ingested could kill an adult according to tobacco education expert Veda Peters. Granted most adults and teens know better than to drink a cylinder of the stuff. A curious young child may not. Indeed U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported calls related to liquid nicotine climbed 215 percent from September 2010 to February 2014. Fifty-one percent of the poison victims were kids under the age of five. Most of these tots likely believed they were drinking fruit nectar as e-Juice can have candy or juice flavouring.
A toxic vape landscape: “New evidence suggests second hand E-cig smoke or ‘vape’ lingers longer than cigarette smoke because vape contains metallic substances that cling harder to surfaces than tobacco smoke,” says pediatrician Richard Stanwick. He concedes the health hazards from viscid vape are unknown.“But why risk exposure?” he asks.
A latent grenade: Faulty e-cig devices have also exploded in the UK and USA. Dr. Robert Strang hasn’t heard any reports of detonated e-cigs in Canada, however he’s hardly surprised the units have caught fire. He says stricter regulation of e-cigs will improve safety standards and possibly decrease poisoning incidents.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2014.