Vape Wars: Are We Missing the Bigger Picture?

Controversial e-cigs surge in popularity as smoking declines

Potential harm from e-cigarettes remains unknown, but millions have quit traditional cigarettes by using them.

A little over six years ago, Michael Wright walked into Beyond Vape in Capitola—one of the area’s first e-cigarette shops—with a few crumpled $20 bills, a half a pack of smokes, and a big dream: to end his smoking habit once and for all.

Wright started smoking what he calls “analog” cigarettes at age 14—two to three packs of Camel Reds a day for almost 12 years. Big Tobacco hooked him early. “When I was smoking cigarettes, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t exercise, and I smelled really bad,” he says. “My whole life changed when I started vaping.”

Wright says he had tried every other product on the market designed to beat smoking, numerous times. The gum and the patch made him physically sick. The pills gave him terrible nightmares. When he tried to go cold turkey and eliminate nicotine entirely, he was miserable and angry. “No one wanted to hang out with me,” he says.

Wright, 27, is one of the millions of people around the globe who has managed to quit smoking cigarettes using vaping devices. He calls electronic cigarettes, which were invented by a Chinese pharmacist whose father died from smoking in 2003, the “ultimate smoking cessation device.”

Vaping, however, receives its fair share of scorn. Scary stories about exploding devices, toxic chemicals, and grade schoolers getting hooked on e-cigarettes are hitting social and mass media outlets with more frequency. And there’s one question Wright hears a lot these days: “Is vaping safe?”

In the United States, e-cigs have developed a menacing reputation. Powerful campaigns from anti-smoking groups have created the perception that e-cigs are just as dangerous as their tobacco counterparts. Vaping devices contain no tobacco, but they are deemed tobacco products and placed under similar restrictions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been a vocal critic of electronic cigarettes for years, consistently warning the public about the potential dangers of e-cigarettes. Recently though, things at the agency may have begun to change. Although not recommending vaping outright, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has repeatedly discussed vaping as a valuable, yet unproven, tool to wean adult smokers off cigarettes.

Most experts agree that conventional cigarettes are the true menace, significantly more damaging than their electronic counterparts. Groups like the American Cancer Society highly recommend electronic nicotine delivery systems to smokers trying to quit.

The ACS contends that members of the general public are being misled by anti-vaping campaigns on social media and the mainstream media. “Over one-third of the population is under the mistaken impression that vaping is just as dangerous to one’s health as smoking,“ estimates the ACS.

Studies documenting “toxic chemicals” found in e-cigs make regular headlines in American news outlets. One highly publicized study done by Harvard University found that diacetyl, known to cause damage to the lungs’ smallest airways, was found in 75 percent of flavored e-cigs. Tobacco cigarettes contain at least 100 times the amount of diacetyl found in vaping products.

While teenage vaping is frequently being called an “epidemic,” what isn’t mentioned is that since the advent of e-cigs teen smoking rates have plummeted to historic lows.

In Great Britain, health agencies, the government and the public are more welcoming of e-cigs, as millions of Brits are using them to ditch “the stinkies.”

The U.K.’s National Health Service reports that “an estimated 2.9 million adults in Great Britain currently use e-cigarettes, and of these, 1.5 million people have completely stopped smoking cigarettes.”

In the U.S, the decades-long war on smoking has become, in effect, a war on nicotine. But nicotine has arguably never been the deadly villain in cigarettes. British scientists and politicians contend the harm from smoking doesn’t come from nicotine, which is already an over-the-counter component in gum, the patch, and pills. Experts agree the true harm comes from the thousands of other chemicals contained in tobacco smoke, including tar and carbon monoxide.

The British Parliament recently concluded that e-cigs are 95 less harmful than traditional cigarettes. An August 2018 report rejects claims that e-cigs can be a gateway to smoking, and that taxes on vaping should be cut significantly. Just last month, the U.K’s House of Commons and Technology Committee recommended that e-cigarettes be made available on a prescription basis as a smoking cessation tool.

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