Contrasting research claims and growing pressure from regulators could dampen the market, experts say
Is “vaping” really a less dangerous way to enjoy the pleasures of cigarette smoking?
While research is still inconclusive, a recent study in Britain suggests that a growing number of tobacco smokers are turning to “e-cigarettes” in the hopes of reducing the documented health dangers associated with tobacco, including lung cancer and emphysema.
The study, sponsored by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), found that over half of one-time tobacco smokers had switched to vaping exclusively, while the remainder was still smoking both types of products.
“This is encouraging news as we know that vapers who continue to smoke continue to be exposed to cancer-causing substances, said Ann McNeill, professor of tobacco addiction at King’s College London, in a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph. “The message for the 1.3 million vapers who still smoke is that they need to go further and switch completely.”
Vaping, which features a nicotine-based liquid that is heated with a battery-powered unit and produces a fragrant mist that resembles cigarette smoke, is a burgeoning pop culture trend, especially among youth.
According to a 2014 Internet survey, an average of 10 new vaping brands have entered the market every month since 2012 , and there are nearly 8,000 vaping “flavors” (most of them fruit-scented) overall. Industry sales revenues, which doubled from 2013 to 2015, were expected to hit the $5 billion mark by the end of 2016 (about one 20th the size of the cigarette market).
However, scientists and public health officials can’t seem to agree on whether vaping is as dangerous as tobacco smoking. Some argue that because e-cigarettes don’t involve burned tobacco, they leave no tar residue that could severely damage the lungs as traditional cigarettes do.
But many public health officials worry that the nicotine in vaping liquid is still highly addictive and could induce otherwise abstaining youngsters to take up tobacco smoking, reversing a decades-long trend of reduced smoking among adults and youth.
Moreover, there is only limited research on the effects of ingesting the residue of the vaping liquid, which includes chemical solvents not found in tobacco. Some fear that vaping may be even more dangerous than tobacco smoking and could also become a “gateway” to marijuana and alcohol use.
Participants in the ASH study were more likely than not (by a 2-1 ratio) to believe that e-cigarettes were as dangerous as tobacco cigarettes — but the vast majority of respondents (61%) were still unsure.
Improved health is not the only reason for the declining smoking rate among those that have tried both products, the study found. Respondents were also concerned over the increasingly high cost of cigarettes due to sharply rising taxes on their sale.
Vaping producers, many of them subsidiaries of the major tobacco companies, are beginning to experiment with the design of the vaping device. The early product design was akin to the traditional cigarette but more recent versions look like flat plastic pipes, further distinguishing the product visually.
Some vaping companies are also introducing synthetic nicotine, which lacks the residue of tobacco flavor found in most vaping liquids. If vaping becomes entirely “tobacco-free,” its reputation as a “healthy” alternative to cigarette smoking would be enhanced, proponents say.
Even so, the vaping industry is beginning to face major regulatory obstacles.
For example, in the United States, the FDA is considering requirements that each new vaping product be approved prior to sale, adding to the bureaucratic paperwork that might discourage new companies from entering the market.
Other FDA regulations could result in stronger manufacturing standards, limitations on approved flavorings, and much stricter control over nicotine levels.
The threat of red tape, combined with the growing belief that vaping may not be as safe as it seems, could severely dampen the market over time, experts say.
A recent study by the University of Michigan found that e-cigarette use among high school students, which had increased by more than 900 percent between 2011 and 2015, had declined for the first time in 2016.
At least for teens, vaping may not prove so “cool” after all.