The increase in electronic cigarette use and vape pens has recently caused the public and medical world anxiety, asking if e-cigarettes are indeed ‘better’ or ‘healthier’ than traditional cigarettes. With six deaths recently recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and 478 open cases of lung related illnesses caused by vaping, we have to ask, “How safe are vapes?”
As of last Wednesday, Donald Trump’s administration responded to the public health scare by putting a ban on all e-cigarette flavors except for tobacco. Will this emphasize the nicotine present in vapes and scare off teens?
One type of e-cigarette, JUUL pens, resemble a flash drive with liquid inside. Their look may be why some think they are innocuous compared to the traditional cigarette’s roll of tobacco and chemicals in paper. JUULs and other vapes’ design feature a tank of liquid that contains nicotine, other chemicals, and artificial flavorings. By using liquid to get nicotine, vapers may not realize the danger of vaping these chemicals if they are only tasting sweet cherry, cotton candy, or bubble gum.
Vape pens, JUULs, and other e-cigarettes are powered by a rechargeable battery that heats the liquid in the tank or cartridge of the vape, and make the liquid, now aerosol at this point in the process, inhalable. According to the Center on Addiction, most people mistake the puffs produced as water vapor, but they are actually an aerosol that “consists of fine particles”. These particles contain “varying amounts of toxic chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, as well as respiratory and heart disease.”
One company criticized for its branding of products being safer than regular cigarettes is the JUUL e-cigarette company. JUUL, a relatively new company founded in 2017, illegally branded their e-cigs as a safe alternative, but did not get federal approval to advertise and sell their products as such. According to Truth Initiative, one Juul pod contains the nicotine equivalent of an entire pack of cigarettes.
If the e-cigarette public health scare sounds familiar, you would be correct. Traditional cigarettes experienced a similar rise and fall in popularity and use, particularly from 1900-1963. The Camel cigarette company hit the scene and dominated the market in 1913 thanks to extensive advertising, similar to how JUUL and vape companies have today. We can not underestimate the power of advertising and public persuasion. Companies like Camel targeted specific audiences like women with their slogan “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet”. The advertisement wasn’t entirely untrue, in that one of the side effects of nicotine is appetite suppression.
A Stanford Research study analyzed JUUL’s advertisements and noted that they used lots of bright colors and young attractive individuals to promote their products. JUUL in particular has excelled at using social media, namely Twitter and Instagram, where younger individuals are more likely to look at their ads. This is similar to the magazine ads of the late 1940s and early 50s with celebrities like Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, Ronald Regan, and Frank Sinatra promoting smoking.
Today, it seems as though most of the draw of vaping comes from looking cool in front of friends. There are ‘vape tricks’ where people try to make circles and the like with the ‘smoke’. The millennial generation has been repeatedly reminded and educated of the dangers of smoking cigarettes, but don’t really know any of the effects of vaping (due to the vape’s novelty and a lack of scientific evidence). Most people wouldn’t smoke a cigarette, but they might try vaping because it’s ‘better for you than cigarettes’. It just looks like a vapor, not physical tobacco containing nicotine, so it must be safe, right?
Similar to today’s public health scare of vaping, cigarettes experienced this exact scenario in 1950. A scientific study done by Ernest Wynder and Evarts Graham ultimately linked cigarettes to lung cancer and adverse health effects. It wasn’t until the Surgeon General published a report in 1964 on the harmful physical effects of smoking that smoking numbers plummeted.
According to the American Lung Association, smoking decreased by 20% from 1963-1983, and then by an additional 49% by 2006. The harmful effects of smoking detailed in the report included respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, various cancers, and, of course, death.
This begs the question, how do false advertisements and unscientific claims by JUUL affect the public’s health and wellbeing? And with six recorded deaths, hundreds of lung illnesses to date, and no clear answers as to the exact cause, are e-cigarettes just another cigarette sexily disguised as an electronic flash drive?