Although I have been studying electronic cigarettes for several years, sometimes it feels like the same questions keep coming back around: Are e-cigarettes safe? What are the health effects of vaping e-cigarettes? Is vaping better than smoking?
These questions come from parents, policy-makers, reporters, patients and health care workers. However, there are many parents here in La Jolla who could tell you firsthand that e-cigarettes are addictive and dangerous. These parents learned about the dangers of vaping e-cigarettes when their own children became addicts.
One La Jolla parent found empty e-cigarette pods in her ninth-grader’s backpack, then had to witness her child’s nicotine withdrawal over the weekend, followed by a months-long period of working to break that powerful addiction.
We have a lot more data on the impact of vaping e-cigarettes on health now, relative to when they were skyrocketing in popularity in 2017. I can confidently say, without a shadow of a doubt, that e-cigarettes are harmful to your health. More specifically, based on my own research here at UC San Diego and the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, I can say that inhaling e-cigarette aerosols leads to negative effects on your lungs, brain, heart, kidneys, liver, colon and immune system.
It has been empowering to conduct research at UCSD in collaboration with multiple powerhouse researchers focused on determining the real risks of these e-devices. Studies published to date have shown that e-cigarettes promote tumorigenesis, are toxic to cells across the body and cause inflammation. Knowing this key information, I wholeheartedly back the movement to ban all flavored tobacco, including e-cigarettes.
E-cigarette flavors such as strawberry banana, lush ice and cotton candy entice children and women. These fruity and sweet e-cigarettes function as a gateway to hook children and adults because 99 percent contain high levels of nicotine, which is one of the five most addictive substances of all time.
Once they are addicted to the nicotine, they are willing to buy any flavor, including tobacco, and have increased rates of adding or switching to conventional tobacco cigarettes. Meanwhile, menthol-flavored e-cigarettes are harmful, especially to Black Americans, who have suffered greatly from the tobacco industry’s unrelenting targeting of their community. Menthol makes nicotine-containing aerosols from e-cigarettes and conventional tobacco smoke go down smoother while making it harder to quit in general.
A particularly disheartening pattern now emerging is that secondhand exposure to e-cigarette aerosols (commonly called vapor) causes respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and wheezing. This alone demonstrates that vaping of e-cigarettes should not be allowed in public areas and that people should be particularly careful not to vape around children and pregnant women.
With the San Diego City Council voting April 25 to approve a ban on flavored e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes, the next step is a second council reading. This will go a long way in preventing children and young adults from picking up these e-cigarettes in the first place and thus will protect our community.
And we must do this quickly because it is anticipated that use of flavored e-cigarettes will continue to rise in our middle and high schools now that our kids are back learning in person (and able to share and buy e-cigarettes in person).
Dr. Laura Crotty Alexander is an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary Critical Care and Sleep at UC San Diego in La Jolla and section chief of pulmonary critical care medicine for the VA San Diego Healthcare System. ◆