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Vaping: The story so far

Vaping: The story so far
April 12, 2016 Liam Hiller

If you take a walk down any moderately busy street today, the chances are you’ll see more than a few people holding what looks like Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver to their mouth, inhaling deeply before breathing out a plume of sweet smelling vapour into the air. Over the past 5-6 years this is a sight that you will have become more accustomed to, as vaping has become a serious alternative to smoking cigarettes. So what is it all about? Why have a large number of people chosen to change up their habit, moving from inhaling tobacco smoke to inhaling vapour consisting of a combination of glycerine and nicotine? Does this have any negative, or indeed positive, effects on the human body? And how has it changed today’s smoking market? 

The process of vaporizing herbs or seeds and then inhaling the vapour dates back further than you might think. The ancient Egyptians were known to vaporise a form of hemp by placing it on hot stones. They would then gather round the stones and take in the pleasant smell that the hemp gave off, inhaling the vapour in the process. This idea was then elaborated on by the Indians who went as far as to create the first vaporizer, known as the hookah. While the hookah technically vaporizes the herb or tobacco placed in it, it does use hot coals to do this, inevitably meaning that the user will inhale a certain amount of smoke.

Modern day vaping, the subject area on which we are interested today, really began in the 1960s, when American, Herbert Gilbert, invented the first “Smokeless non-tobacco cigarette”. He claimed that he had invented an electronic cigarette through which the user could inhale nicotine without combustion, therefore without smoke. Unfortunately for him, the product didn’t take off and so his idea was consigned to the back-burner for the next 30 years. 

It was in 1993 that the most revolutionary vaporizer came to our attention. Another american, Billy Eagle, learned a method of vapourizing from a cannabis grower in California. He then used the method he had been shown to invent a pipe that could be used for smoking cannabis. His pipe became incredibly popular among cannabis smokers worldwide, and won many awards at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. 

It wasn’t for another 7 years that we would see what is widely considered to be the first, proper, electronic cigarette. Enter Hon Lik, a Chinese inventor who, in the year 2000, managed to create the worlds first e-cig as we know it today, and well, it kind of took off. Today an estimated 9 million people vape in the US, with as many as 2.6 million in the UK and well over 150,000 in Australia, and these numbers are growing every day.

So why have so many people jumped on the bandwagon? The main reason is, of course, their health. Over the past 50 years study after study has been carried out on the dangers of smoking cigarettes and it has now been known for some time that smoking tobacco is most definitely linked to lung cancer. In fact it can increase your chances of getting the disease by between 15 and 30 times. With this evidence so readily available and visible today, even cigarettes packets now carry brutal warnings, it is no surprise that so many have switched to vaping. But is it entirely safe?

Theoretically, it should be a lot safer than smoking. To start with, the lack of combustion means that there is literally no smoke. This obviously means that no carbon monoxide is produced, no tar is being burned, in the case of cigarettes, and therefore no damaging smoke is being inhaled. The vaporizer simply heats the product, whatever that may be, to a low temperature where it will not combust, but simply be stripped of all the products that one wants to inhale. In the case of cannabis, it is the cannabinoids, and in the case of cigarette replacements it is the nicotine. But does this work in practice and are there any negative health effects at all?

A recent study carried out at the John Hopkins university in the United States found some interesting results that surprised many experts. After testing out vaping on mice they found that while e-cig vapour does not contain the combustion products or the tar that is taken in when smoking conventional cigarettes, it does still contain “free radical toxins” similar to those found in cigarette smoke. These toxins can indeed be harmful to the human body, causing lung damage and weakening the immune system. 

Should vapers worry? Probably not. The same study found that while some free radical toxins are present, they only exist at about 1% of the level of tobacco based cigarettes. That’s a 99 percent reduction in the level of these toxins being taken into the body. The absence of most of these specific toxins, along with a range of others that can be found in cigarettes, is surely a good sign for vapers. 

Another positive that will come from the popularisation of e-cigarettes, and vaporizers in general, is that it has the ability to aid those that want to fully combat and beat their addiction. While it is true that with every puff the user is still inhaling the nicotine that they are so addicted to, most e-cigs today actually allow for control over the levels being taken. This means that users can gradually reduce the levels they are taking into their bodies, effectively allowing them to ‘taper off’ their addiction and there are many stories across the world of people using this method to quit. In fact in the UK many doctors are even recommending them to patients looking to give up their smoking habit. 

So we have established that choosing vaporizers over cigarettes seems to be the way forward for those wanting to reduce the risk of cancer or quit their habit, but it is not just those using the vaporizers that are benefitting. Several studies have recently concluded that the vapour being exhaled by the user is actually harmless to those around them.  One of the most conclusive studies took place in Germany, where a smoker inhaled cigarette smoke and then e-cigarette vapour, on two seperate occasions, exhaling into an air tight box. They then tested the smoke and vapour and compared the results. They found that of the 20 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in the cigarette smoke, only tiny amounts of 5 of these were present in the vapour. 

To show that the vapour many people are inhaling today is less harmful for you than the tobacco smoke they were previously taking in, is positive news for many, but the fact that it is also harmless to those around them is a major boost for the growing industry. 

With the market expanding exponentially over the past 10 years, and the results of more studies pointing towards the health benefits that can come from switching to vapour, it is only natural that many companies, in many countries, are trying to get involved. Where there is money to be made, there are people to be found. This could have serious effects on the smoking industry in years to come, as tobacco companies will almost certainly see a significant drop in their profits. 

Sadly, this overcrowding of the market brings some dangers with it. The quality of the vaporizers on the shelf today vary greatly, with many newer brands being imported from China, and other countries, where cheap labour is rife. It is not always the case but one must be aware that with cheap labour, comes a cheap product. These factories are so focused on how many items they can produce in a day that sometimes, the focus on quality is all but lost. On top of this there is always the risk that when buying e-liquids from similar places, they are not exactly what they say they are. Some of the popular ingredients in e-liquids are often replaced with cheaper alternatives.

This brings us to the importance of regulating the market. While there are not a great deal of regulations currently in place, mainly due to the market’s age, some companies have taken it upon themselves to be as safe as possible, providing a reliable and safe product, while expressing caution over possible risks. This is a very human touch and one that couldn’t be further from the methods shown by the corporate behaviour of tobacco companies over the past 40 years, which all too often seem to forget that they are dealing with real human lives. 

It would be crazy to suggest that in the 15 years since vaping became popular enough has been learned about the method and products to say that it is completely safe, but early signs suggest it is certainly healthier than smoking. In the years to come we will hear more about the effects and possible benefits of vaping, but for now we can only go on what we know, and that is that vaporizing seems to be a whole lot better for you than smoking.

Photo credit: Centophobia via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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