If one thing has become clear over the past 50 years or so, it’s that inhaling smoke—whether purposefully or through a secondhand source—is bad for our lungs and overall health. Smoking (particularly cigarettes) has been linked to everything from asthma and gum disease to lung cancer. Unfortunately, smoking has been a tough habit to kick for many Americans (you can thank the addictive nature of nicotine for that), so when e-cigarettes first hit the market, they seemed like the answer to every smoker’s prayers: Finally, a way to smoke that wouldn’t totally derail our health!
If it seemed too good to be true, that’s because it probably was. The CDC has linked vaping and e-cigarettes with five deaths and 450 illnesses in recent months, which is pretty terrifying considering we thought vaping was the “answer” to so many of the health complications related to smoking. But how bad is vaping really? Let’s take a closer look at what we know.
The main thing to know about vaping so far is that it’s barely been studied. “We’ve only started looking at the effects of vaping over the past year or so,” Jorge Mercado, MD, clinical assistant professor of Pulmonary Medicine at NYU Langone Hospital–Brooklyn, says. “When you talk about vaping, you're really not talking about once specific device—and they’re hard to track, because most of them are made in fly-by-night places in Southeast China. It wasn't until JUUL monopolized the market that people had a name to associate vaping with.”
The few studies that have been conducted were focused on how to get people to stop smoking cigarettes and engage in something “healthier,” and some of the results did lean toward the conclusion that vaping is better for us than smoking. So vaping companies took these conclusions and ran with them. “JUUL has been saying, you know, we go after the current cigarette smoker and give them this more attractive way to quit cigarettes,” explains Mercado. “But the big concern now is that the cigarette consumption in the US was almost down to 1%, and now we're seeing a huge spike again, but it's through vaping.”
Because vaping hasn’t been around for very long, it’s hard to associate specific long-term health consequences in the same way we can now confidently link cigarette smoke with lung cancer. According to Mercado, vaping-related illnesses are mostly manifesting in mysterious pneumonia-like cases so far, called “lipoid pneumonia.” While not much is known about it so far, it’s thought to be connected to the chemicals used to create smoke in e-cigarettes. “We had two cases in the last month-and-a-half where young men came in and it looked like they had pneumonia, but there was no infection. We couldn't find anything,” he said. "The only thing we noticed was their symptoms got better after they stopped vaping."
Due to limited research, at this point it’s impossible to say exactly how dangerous or safe vaping is. But Mercado suspects that because e-cigarettes and vape pens don’t emit a strong smell and obvious puff of smoke in the same way cigarettes do, we may be doing more of it, which is particularly scary when you consider how many young people without fully-developed lungs are vaping. “I would compare it to when you have a gas leak,” he says. “If you don't smell the gas leak, how do you know if it's going to explode?”
Another thing to consider? Secondhand e-cigarette smoke, which hasn’t been studied at all. “Does it affect people? We haven't seen a case yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” says Mercado. “If vaping goes more mainstream it probably will happen.”
As with most things that haven’t been studied extensively, at this point it’s tough to know exactly how safe or dangerous vaping really is. But if recent vaping-related new stories are any indication, you’ll probably do your lungs and long-term health a favor if you back off.