Studying the worldwide phenomenon of vaping and its dangers

In a puff of smoke, vaping has become a worldwide phenomenon. As more dimly-lit electronic cigarette stores set up shop across Montreal, Concordia University Health and Exercise Science masters students, Tasfia Tasbih and Florent Larue, aim to demystify the consequences of using e-cigarettes.

“People have the notion that [an e-cigarette] is really safe and that it’s not harmful like a regular cigarette, but it actually is,” Tasbih said. “Any amount of nicotine consumed is harmful. Smokers may not feel the impact today, but what I have found is that these products will gradually drag you toward addiction and different negative physiological responses.”

Some users misguidedly believe that vaping is more effective than conventional treatments to stop smoking altogether. However, there is no evidence of its harmlessness. The World Health Organization has consistently called for a regulation of e-cigarettes because of the lack of literature, and this past June, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban the sale and distribution of e-cigarettes.

According to Tasbih and Larue, e-cigarettes are often promoted as being healthier because companies deceptively claim that they do not contain nicotine.

“More and more people are nowadays choosing electronic cigarettes to reduce their combustible cigarette consumption, unaware of the lack of knowledge we have about this device,” Larue said.

What makes e-cigarettes so appealing is that, unlike a traditional cigarette, as battery-powered vaporizers, they are more easily concealed than their tobacco-rolled counterpart. In 2018, the value of e-cigarettes was estimated at $15 billion worldwide, and their popularity continues to grow. In an attempt to attract more clients, companies have produced vapes in a variety of colours, sizes and designs, allowing users to customize their experience.

E-cigarette companies have also received backlash for developing different fruity flavours for vape juice, also referred to as “e-juice” or “e-liquid.” This juice is the fluid used in vaporizers to create vapour and varies in nicotine levels. Flavours available include peppermint, strawberry and raspberry, which are especially popular among younger clients.

While researchers have shown that using e-cigarettes leads to reduced respiratory function, Tasbih and Larue hope to take their work a step further. Over the course of their three-year project, the two graduate students will study how to approach smoking cessation treatment, as well as the impacts of e-cigarette consumption, according to sex differences.

For Larue, the research project is a way for he and his colleagues to confirm the impact of e-cigarettes on the autonomic nervous system’s stress response.

The research team, supervised by Dr. Simon Bacon, has already begun recruiting participants. Throughout the project, Tasbih and Larue plan to study 120 participants between the ages of 18 and 45 who don’t have chronic diseases. Ninety will be either e-cigarette or traditional cigarette smokers, and the remaining ones will be non-smokers.

Yet, conducting the pioneering study has presented its fair share of challenges. Although there are many ways to measure the autonomic nervous system, they are not easily feasible. Over the course of their work, Larue admits that he and his colleagues sometimes struggled to obtain a good signal to perform impedance cardiography assessments.

“One of the many [challenges] is to screen people with no smoking history and no underlying disease, to make sure that the effects we will see aren’t linked to something other than e-cig smoking,” Larue said. “We also have to be precise in our measurements since physiological changes observed can be small, but when lasting for years, they could still become meaningful or harmful.”


Photo by Britanny Clarke


E-Cigarettes: a fake puff with real consequences

“Vapours” might be harmless, but that isn’t a free pass.

Electronic cigarettes have been in the news a lot lately. It all seems unbelievably biased and almost short-sighted in nature: the reports of them being a gateway to smoking (or even harder drugs), or that they’re marketed to children, have created a campaign of fear-mongering by some media outlets.

Let’s start with some science: an e-cig is essentially a battery that sends power to a coil, which heats up and atomizes a liquid. What is inhaled is made up of propylene glycol (commonly found in medical inhalers and food), vegetable glycerine (used in food and shisha), food flavouring and – of course – nicotine. Minus the food flavouring, these are medically proven to be safe for inhalation. Pretty simple, right?

The liquid itself varies in strength, going from no nicotine at all to strong doses like 24 milligrams per millilitre. It’s important to note that a single cigarette holds roughly 18 milligrams of nicotine. Obviously, the math becomes a little more complicated down the line, but there’s nothing grossly unsafe about the practice.

Photo by Jocelyn Beaudet

As it stands, the new hobby supposedly helps many kick the habit, by progressively stepping down the intake of nicotine. Better yet, it helps users purge the added “bonuses” of standard cigarettes like tar, all while being much cheaper. So what exactly is the problem here?

All things considered, there’s a big market for smoking in the West – and not just from those picking up the habit, but also from those quitting it. Pharmaceutical companies are making millions on quit smoking aids and the government is raking in its fair share of taxes, too. Just like dieting “supplements,” the best way to secure returning business on quit smoking tools is to ensure that they have a reasonable chance to fail. But when something new comes in (with standard sales taxes applied, rather than the ludicrous increased taxes on cigarettes to “encourage people to quit”), it becomes clear that this is a business being disrupted. After all, who can out-monopolize the people in charge of regulating against monopolies?

Conspiracies aside, there’s still a lot of discussion to be had regarding those who are making the switch, and it all boils down to etiquette. A lot of shops and places will flat out say that you can use e-cigs any and everywhere, because it’s not really smoking. This holds a degree of truth: the “vapour” produced is relatively harmless according to several studies done on the subject. The smell generally reflects whatever flavour the user has, but more importantly it dissipates fairly quickly. This is all well and good, but there’s still the issue of respect to keep in consideration.

I’ve been using e-cigs for a year and haven’t really used them indoors unless permitted by the establishment either openly, or after some enquiries. Not so cool, though, are the fellow students I’ve seen using them indoors on campus and the random folks puffing away on the metro and in the bus. Don’t get me wrong, I get it: it’s fairly stealthy and can be pretty unnoticeable. But to be honest, doing this is going to harm the case for e-cigs far more than help them in the long run. If the market needs to do any convincing to keep from being locked and shut down, then it needs to start being mindful of non-smokers, too.

At the end of the day, it’s not healthy. There’s no point in saying it is. But e-cigs are sold as a tool for harm-reduction. Being able to get a nicotine fix anywhere isn’t in the books, nor should it be. I don’t miss the days of smoky bars and night clubs, and I’m fairly sure that most people would be inclined to agree. If you’re an e-cigarette smoker, head outside during your breaks like everyone else, or check with the establishment to see whether or not they’re okay with it first. It’s common sense, just like kicking the habit altogether.

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