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Vaping vs. Smoking: Is Vaping The Best Option To Quit Smoking?

Person blowing out vaping smoke

Recent deaths surrounding vaping have put users on high alert. Touted as being safer than cigarettes and a helpful way to quit traditional smoking, these products are now on the hot seat. Here’s what you need to know to make the right decision for you.

Vaping defined

Vaping is quite simply the act of smoking electronic cigarettes, known as e-cigarettes. Alternative names include juicing, JUULing (named for a leading brand) and, when marijuana is involved, dabbing.

The devices used in vaping are called vapes. They have coils that heat up and produce an aerosol mist or vapor from a liquid. The liquid can be made of different chemicals — the active ingredient in most vapes is nicotine, marijuana or both. As you inhale, the mist or vapor sends these substances into your lungs, putting you at risk for severe harm to your pulmonary system.

Vaping devices have a refillable tank or disposable pod for the liquid, and some users refill these containers with homemade liquids containing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for marijuana's mind-altering effects) or other drugs that enhance the high that comes with vaping.

Effects of vaping on the lungs

Inhalation of vaping substances works just like inhalation of anything else. The user inhales and exhales the heated aerosol produced by the vaping device. But, your lungs are not equipped to properly process these substances, most of which have not been tested for safety via inhalation. In fact, each “drag” exposes you to between 60 and 100 different chemicals.

Vaping immediately affects vascular function, even if there is no nicotine, according to the results of a study published in the journal Radiology in August 2019. As substances in the vapor reach the lungs’ alveoli (air sacs), they work their way into the bloodstream, causing inflammation and restricting blood flow. Using MRI results from before and after vaping, the researchers found that these vascular changes could be seen after just one vaping session.

Long term, vaping increases the chances of developing chronic lung diseases such as bronchitis, asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to the results of a recent study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

They determined that vaping was an independent risk factor for developing lung disease in addition to smoking. They also found that dual use, which was common, was risker than using either vaping or smoking alone. Their findings, published in December 2019 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, stem from analysis of data from a study that followed vaping and tobacco habits as well as new diagnoses of lung disease among thousands of American adults over a three-year period. Conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, it was called PATH (Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health).

Vaping vs. smoking: a bad-health comparison

Vaping and smoking are both bad for your health. Far more is known about smoking’s dangers because cigarettes have been around for hundreds of years and heavily studied over decades. With relatively new vaping, health experts have some clues about the damage it does, but do not yet know the extent of what is not known about it.

Vaping risks

Here are the most important risks associated with vaping, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Nicotine is addictive. In fact it may be more difficult to quit nicotine than heroin. Many people need a form of nicotine replacement or medication to help stave off cravings, which can be extremely powerful.
  • Vaping substances can cause lung tissue inflammation and damage. This damage can be severe and in some cases irreversible. Some people have even died as a result of vaping. One contributing factor is the common practice of adding unknown substances to vaping liquids. It can be difficult for doctors to know how to treat victims of vaping injury because it is sometimes difficult to identify what the user inhaled, particularly when the person has been placed on a ventilator (intubated) or is unconscious.
  • Vaping often lasts longer than smoking a cigarette. Most smokers spend two to five minutes smoking one cigarette, while vapers often spend up to 20 minutes at a time vaping. The result is increased amounts of nicotine and dangerous chemicals delivered to the lungs.
  • Vaping can have adverse effects on brain development. Nicotine can compromise focus and brain development. Moreover, nicotine can be a gateway drug, leading to the use of other drugs.

Smoking risks

Smoking has been linked to a wide range of harmful effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It damages almost every organ in the body, is the cause of numerous diseases and compromises overall health.

  • Smoking is the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the United States, responsible for more than 480,000 deaths a year — nearly 20 percent of American deaths.
  • More than 10 times as many U.S. citizens have succumbed to premature death due to smoking than have perished in all wars fought by the country.
  • Lung cancer causes more deaths among women than breast cancer.
  • Smoking can lead to lung disease because it damages the lungs’ airways and alveoli. It's the cause of about 80 percent of deaths from COPD.
  • Smokers are at greater risk for heart disease and stroke.
  • Smoking can lead to cancer in nearly every part of the body, not just the lungs, and increases cancer patients’ odds of dying from cancer.
  • If no one smoked, one-third of cancer deaths in the United States would not occur.

According to the CDC, smoking affects so many things people take for granted, from getting pregnant to maintaining good eyesight. For instance:

  • Smoking can make it difficult for a woman to get pregnant and can compromise the health of her baby before and after birth. It increases the risk for early delivery, stillbirth (death of baby prior to birth), low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) or crib death, ectopic pregnancy and orofacial clefts in the baby.
  • Smoking can compromise a man’s sperm, reducing his fertility and increasing his children’s risk for birth defects and miscarriage.
  • Smoking can compromise bone health.
  • Smoking can affect the health of the teeth and gums as well as lead to tooth loss.
  • Smoking can increase a person’s risk for developing cataracts.
  • Smoking can cause age-related macular degeneration (AMD), or damage to the central retina, which is responsible for central vision.
  • Smoking is one cause of type 2 diabetes, and it can make it more difficult to keep diabetes under control. Smokers are 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop diabetes than are nonsmokers.
  • Smoking causes inflammation, decreased immune function and other general negative effects on the body.
  • Smoking is one of the triggers for rheumatoid arthritis.

The CDC also spells out the benefits of quitting smoking:

  • By quitting smoking, you can lessen your chances of having a heart attack or other cardiovascular problem.
  • Within two to five years of quitting smoking, your risk for stroke can be reduced to that of a nonsmoker.
  • By quitting smoking, your chances of developing cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat and bladder are reduced by 50 percent within five years.
  • A decade after quitting smoking, your odds of dying from lung cancer are reduced by 50 percent.

Is vaping any better than smoking?

Both vaping and smoking are very damaging to your health. But is one better than the other? Perhaps the answer can be found in the results of the study conducted at UCSF.

The researchers involved determined that, while switching from smoking to vaping lowered the risk for lung disease, less than 1 percent of the smokers involved in the study quit smoking. Instead, most smokers added vaping to their smoking habit, increasing their risk for lung disease over smoking alone.

In other words, while vaping may not be as bad for your health as smoking (although there are still too many unknowns to know if that's the case), there is little reason to believe that e-cigs will keep you from smoking real cigs. They may only exacerbate your nicotine addiction and use.

Article references

  1. Boston Children's Hospital, Vaping - http://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/v/vaping
  2. Prisma Health, Kinds and vaping: What you need to know - https://www.ghs.org/healthcenter/ghsblog/kids-and-vaping-what-you-need-to-know/
  3. UC San Diego News Center, Vaping: A Serious Hit to Your Health - https://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/feature/vaping-a-serious-hit-to-your-health
  4. Radiology, Acute Effects of Electronic Cigarette Aerosol Inhalation on Vascular Function Detected at Quantitative MRI - https://pubs.rsna.org/doi/full/10.1148/radiol.2019190562
  5. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Association of E-Cigarette Use with Respiratory Disease Among Adults: A Longitudinal Analysis  - https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(19)30391-5/fulltext
  6. Mayo Clinic, A doctor's warning about the dangers of vaping - https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/featured-topic/a-doctors-warning-about-the-dangers-of-vaping
  7. Centers for Disease Control, Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking - https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/effects_cig_smoking/index.htm
  8. Centers for Disease Control, Outbreak of lung injury associated with the use of e-cigarettes - https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/e-cigarettes/severe-lung-disease.html
  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Marijuana - https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/what-marijuana