With 'vaping' on the rise, debate centers on its effects
By JIM NEWTON | Lake County News-Sun, Ill. | Published: March 25, 2017
LAKE COUNTY, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — Whether the "skyrocketing" use of electronic cigarettes can help smokers quit tobacco use or lure youth and adults back to nicotine is a question up for debate locally.
Lea Bacci, an assistant addiction prevention coordinator with the Lake County Health Department, said that a Centers for Disease Control study from 2011 through 2015 found that e-cigarette use by youth had tripled during that time period. Bacci said that is discouraging, especially at a time when youth smoking has been trending downward.
Bacci said one concern is a perception among some that electronic cigarettes don't contain nicotine. Non-nicotine e-cigarette liquid is available, but most e-liquids do have nicotine at varying levels.
"E-cigarettes may contain nicotine in unregulated quantities. There is nicotine in them," Bacci said. "The risk of addiction is one of the most important things to think about, especially with youth."
Electronic cigarettes or vape pens are battery-powered devices, most substantially larger than cigarettes, that heat a liquid into a vapor for inhalation. The term "vaping" is commonly used to describe the use of electronic cigarettes and smoking devices.
Bacci said the practice is attractive to youth because some vapor can be essentially odorless and is often undetectable to adults. Kids who are using e-cigarettes will not arrive at school or come home smelling of cigarettes.
But some local vape-shop owners said recently that some of their customers began vaping to quit cigarettes and eliminate the harmful effects of breathing in combustible smoke.
"One of the biggest driving forces (that brings customers to vape shops) is that they are trying to quit smoking," said Steven Hayes, manager of Vape Scene in Gurnee.
Hayes said he believes the vapor that replaces smoke does not contain the stew of carcinogens connected to tobacco, and that the United States is lagging behind in studies on the issue. Doctors in the United Kingdom often advise patients to use vaping as a way to quit their cigarette habit, he said.
Bacci said that despite claims that vaping is safer than regular cigarette smoking, the number of toxic chemicals involved and their possible long-term effects remain unknown.
"It's too early. We don't know what else is in them," she said. "The Surgeon General's Office has a little information, but it takes time to do long-term assessments."
Likewise, there is not much information on any potential negative effects that second-hand vapor could have on people, Bacci said.
Nevertheless, Bacci said she is skeptical that vaping helps adults get away from addiction, and she has concerns that it may end up leading to dual use and increased nicotine intake.
Tom Merritt of Gurnee, a customer at Vape Scene, said he quit smoking cigarettes by turning to the electronic variety, and that the vape liquid he uses is nicotine-free.
Merritt, 32, said he had been smoking regularly since he was 15 years old. He said he tried to quit smoking numerous times, but never did until he tried vaping.
"A stick of gum and Jolly Ranchers wouldn't cut it," he said.
Merritt said he only uses non-nicotine e-liquid, and that quitting was relatively easy and quick for him. He said he believes the difference is that vaping allows him to continue his previous routine, even without nicotine.
"The routine is something you are familiar with," Merritt said.
He said he also considers the lack of a cigarette odor that goes with smoking an advantage of vaping over smoking..
"Not smelling like cigarettes is a beautiful thing," Merritt said. "I never fully noticed it until I quit."
Hayes, who said he also used vaping to quit smoking, and Merritt both said that after quitting cigarettes for e-cigarettes, they experienced a significant increase in their sense of smell and taste.
Hayes says he has noticed subtle improvements in his health as well, such as not becoming winded after walking up stairs.
While the e-cigarette solutions sold with electronic smoking devices come in various nicotine strengths, Hayes said e-liquids containing no nicotine also are popular.
In addition to addiction concerns, Bacci said a main concern among addiction prevention groups is that electronic smoking devices can be used for other substances as well, including marijuana in the form of hash or cannabis oil.
"That's one of the number-one things we're focusing on," she said.
Hayes said that the types of devices that can be used to vape marijuana oils are usually sold in smoke shops that also sell drug paraphernalia.
He added that while some electronic devices can be used to smoke marijuana oil and hash oil, those substances would quickly "wreck" the devices sold at his shop.
E-cigarettes are not allowed on any school campuses in Lake County, Bacci said, and some communities already have regulated where they can be used.
Four Lake County communities — Highland Park, Deerfield, Lincolnshire and Buffalo Grove — have adopted ordinances that subject e-cigarettes to the same regulations as regular cigarettes.
Hayes said the e-smoking devices at his shop range from $20 to more than $200 and the liquid costs about $25.
Flavors range from sweet or fruity to others that are more exotic, he said.
"There are chicken and waffle flavors," he said. "You name it, you can find it."
Charlene Craft, owner of Hayze Vape in downtown Waukegan, said she has had a steadily growing customer base since opening last summer. Craft said she personally does not smoke and uses an e-cigarette device with liquid that contains no nicotine.
"I vape zero (nicotine free) because it relaxes you," she said.
But Craft said she believes the vaping option helps some people stop smoking by providing an activity that is similar without the annoying and dangerous smoke from regular cigarettes.
Craft, who runs the store with partner Jason Friedrich, said "the majority" of her customers use liquids with some nicotine, with 3 milligrams, the lowest option, being the most popular level, followed by 6 milligrams. She said her shop also sells liquid with 0, 12, 18 and 24 milligrams of nicotine.
Starter kits range from about $20 to $40, as well as higher-level models with more power that are more expensive and that she recommends only for people who are already accustomed to vaping.
"Someone starting shouldn't start with something powerful," Craft said.
Chris Wright of New Orleans, currently stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes as a Navy corpsman, stopped into Hayze Vape recently to buy some solution for his vaping device. He said he has been vaping for about four years, and that it is gaining popularity on the base — although he added that, like cigarettes, e-cigarette use is not allowed in buildings and many other areas of the base. He said he follows those guidelines.
Wright also said vaping helped him quit his cigarette habit. He said he uses a low-level nicotine solution, and has noticed the difference physically since quitting regular cigarettes.
"I used to get that pressure in your chest that smokers have," he said.
Research in the American Journal of Presentative Medicine, based on a team study led by a CDC cigarette specialist, shows that in 2015, a sharp decline in sales of regular cigarettes in previous years had slowed, but the sale of e-cigarettes, which the journal says also pose health hazards, was "skyrocketing."
"A majority of adult e-cigarette users report current cigarette smoking," the authors reported. "For adult smokers to benefit from e-cigarettes, they must completely quit combusted tobacco."
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