The Vaping Public Health Crisis
The emergence of electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) on the market several years ago as an alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes—and as a potential aid to smokers wanting to kick the habit—has quickly ballooned into what medical experts say is a public health problem in urgent need of regulation.
“The general perception among the public is that e-cigs are ‘safer’ than cigarettes. The reality is the industry is changing so fast that usage is outpacing the rate of our scientific understanding,” says Peter Shields, MD, deputy director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and a thoracic oncologist at the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.
“It’s becoming a public health crisis we should all take very seriously from a general lung health, cancer risk and addiction perspective” Shields adds. “E-cigs may be safer than smoking, but that is not the same as safe, and we need to know how unsafe they are. The recent outbreak for serious lung effects and deaths linked to vaping shows us how serious the adverse impacts can be.”
Usage rates for e-cig products—also known as vapes, e-hookahs, vape pens, tank systems, mods and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS)—have risen at alarming speeds, especially among youth so that more are using e-cigs than smoking cigarettes.
How e-cig use will affect developing adolescent brains, as well as long-term health impacts of these products, are unknown. Limited data exists confirming whether e-cigs help current smokers quit or are more effective than nicotine-replacement therapy.
“What is seen in the general population is that many smokers do not quit, and many add e-cig use to their smoking,” Shields says. “If e-cigs are not helping adult smokers quit, then there is strong rationale to ban them, in large part because we do not know their health consequences.”
E-cigs work by heating a liquid to produce an aerosol that users inhale into their lungs. In August 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was granted regulatory power over e-cig design, but data is urgently needed to justify industry regulation.
“Many people are using e-cigs not just for nicotine, but to inhale other drugs like THC. It is this latter use that is likely causing the outbreak of serious lung toxicity,” says Shields.
Many e-cig users have found ways to modify these devices to deliver higher levels of nicotine and THC liquids, which Shields says is concerning because the health impact of heating and then inhaling these multi-ingredient compound liquids (and associated chemicals) is unknown.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only recently identified the outbreak of serious lung injury related to vaping. As of late October 2019, more than 1,600 vaping-related lung injuries and dozens of deaths had been reported across 49 states. Researchers at The Ohio State University are working with the CDC and others to find out the cause.
To learn more about tobacco research studies at the OSUCCC – James, please visit go.osu.edu/tobacco-research.