David Packman questions the emergence of a new “extreme sport” – competitive vaping – highlighting some potential health concerns and the messages it is sending to our youth
Last week I was rather taken aback to read in The Wall Street Journal about the rise of what is being purported as the latest “extreme sport” to hit the United States and, as it appears from the article, an increasing number of venues around the world.
So-called “competitive vaping” involves contestants using electronic cigarettes with the aim of creating the biggest “clouds” of vapor in organized events that now even boast teams, sponsors and prize money.
“Welcome to the newest entrant in the extreme sports category: cloud chasing,” heralds the WSJ. “Competitors play it not with balls and bats, but with electronic cigarettes. They are called cloud chasers, and their devoted fans are cloud gazers.”
Look, I understand that for better or worse, the era of the e-cigarette is upon us. It’s already a billion-dollar industry and the growth forecasts are nothing short of staggering. It is well on track to outsell tobacco products within a decade. Right now, according to the WSJ, there are an estimated 8,500 vape shops in the US alone, doing US$1.2 billion in sales.
Disturbingly though, despite more than 40 US states prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to those under 18, a WebMD feature states that the number of teens and tweens using these products doubled between 2011 and 2012. The New York Times recently ran an article in which teenagers said that e-cigarettes “had become almost as common at school as laptops”.
With the jury still well and truly out on the health impact of vaping, this raises some serious red flags in promoting the use of e-cigarettes as a “sport.”
As it stands, research into the effects of e-cigarettes lags far behind their popularity. Despite what manufacturers are telling us, the simple answer to the question of potential harm to the user – or from second hand exposure – is unknown and, as such, e-cigarettes have already created a raging debate among health experts and in the media.
“It’s the healthy alternative taking over my school,” the New York Times quoted Tom, a 15-year-old sophomore, as saying. There is a dangerous precedent being set here if our youth are being led to believe this. It may turn out that vaping is healthier than smoking, but frankly, one could still engage in some remarkably health-destroying activities for that statement to hold true, and whatever the case, using an e-cigarette is certainly not healthy – to what degree time will only tell.
Unfortunately, the largest and most accurate body of research being undertaken is the real life scenario that is playing out right now, which is essentially using us – the unsuspecting public – as guinea pigs. The results should be known in about ten years from now. It’s a remarkably similar situation to the one that the e-cigarette industry is apparently hoping to curb – think back to the early years of smoking.
Let’s start by taking a look at the make-up of the liquid in the average e-cigarette. It’s typically a combination of nicotine, flavorings and other chemical additives, along with propylene glycol. Simply heat together and inhale.
For the record, the most common use of industrial grade propylene glycol is for the production of paints, enamels and varnishes. It’s also the active ingredient in engine coolant and antifreeze. Granted, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified food and pharmaceutical grade propylene glycol as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use, where it can be found as anything from a solvent to a flavor carrier. Current European standards around its usage are much more strict; however you look at it though, it is a chemical compound that has been surrounded in a certain amount of controversy for a long time.
It is also contained in certain medicinal intravenous drugs as a stabilizing agent and that’s where it touches me personally.
As someone with a chronic blood disorder, I will likely be required to use a drug that contains a small amount of propylene glycol in the future. I will no doubt use it when and if the time comes, but pumping even that amount into my bloodstream on a regular basis is not something I’m thrilled about. Heating up a larger amount along with a bunch of other chemicals and inhaling it directly into my lungs?
On balance, while some evidence suggests that e-cigarettes may be even more harmful than regular cigarettes, other research says it might be much safer, showing that the amount of dangerous chemicals they give off is less than what you’d get from a real cigarette – but there appears to be one caveat to that.
One of the many problematic emissions from regular cigarettes is formaldehyde – a well-known cause of cancer – and recent research from Portland State University puts levels in e-cigarette vapor at five to fifteen times higher.
Even though previous tests produced similar results, these studies have been criticized by the e-cigarette industry saying that the results were unreliable.
This is based on the fact that when used at low voltage, no formaldehyde was detected. At high voltage, a great deal is produced. Once again, it’s foggy territory. The New York Times – who previously ran articles such as “Selling Poison by the Barrel” – covered the formaldehyde debate thus.
Also worthy of discussion is the potential for the lithium-ion battery inside the e-cigarette to explode. While this is already a well-known issue with mobile phones and laptops – and happens infrequently, often due to using an incompatible charger – it was raised in profile when footage emerged of an 18-year-old bartender in North Yorkshire, England, who was serving drinks when a colleague’s e-cigarette exploded, setting her dress on fire.
The other area of interest is the legislative restriction of e-cigarettes that is currently in force at varying levels globally, most notably in the European Union. Interestingly, New York City banned e-cigarettes in December 2013, and other cities – like Boston and Los Angeles – have also passed laws about how people can buy or use e-cigarettes in public. In my own country, Australia, it is illegal to sell or supply e-cigarettes in the state of Western Australia.
In many places, officials have even issued warnings about the risks of vaping. WebMD discusses the work of Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health, who produced a report that found e-cigarettes to be a “community heath threat” claiming that users are exposing themselves to ten known carcinogens.
“There is a lot of misinformation about e-cigarettes. That is why, as the state’s health officer, I am advising Californians to avoid the use of e-cigarettes and keep them away from children of all ages,” he was quoted as saying at the time.
Even the World Health Organization has called for them to be banned from indoor use suggesting they pose a risk to children and unborn babies.
While I accept the potential use of vaping as a genuine aid in tobacco smoking cessation, are we also breeding a new generation of young “straight-to-vape” consumers who are inhaling a chemical cocktail with an unknown – but clearly far from beneficial – impact on health, one that is now being further glamorized via the emergence of this new “sport”?
Photo Credit: Flickr/genphys
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