The vices with vaping: A dangerous habit that’s taking over teen and young adult culture

Photo by Brit Kovacs

“Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray.”

I remember this poster hanging up in my high school health classroom. If you smoke, no one will want to kiss you. Oh, the horror. 

In reality though, every kid had it drilled into them that smoking cigarettes was more or less like slowly nailing your own coffin closed. Lung cancer, heart disease, brain damage, you name it, cigarettes will do it to you. 

The harmful effects of cigarette use have been studied for decades, and not a student in sight would fail at naming at least one, even if the effect meant that you simply weren’t kissing anyone: pretty detrimental if you ask me. 

“A death stick,” some might call it. But while traditional cigarettes have more or less lost their grip on youth today, e-cigarettes have largely upstaged the former. 

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes for short, are handheld battery-powered vapourizing devices.

The vapours or e-liquids, commonly referred to as “juice,” include many chemicals and are oftentimes flavoured. 

“With e-cigarettes, there’s over 7,800 different flavours, and new flavours are being discovered and created every day. In terms of the vape devices, there’s over 800 different types of vapes that have been created and there’s more, again, being developed all the time,” explained Ruth Cordukes, Public Health Nurse, at the Region of Waterloo Public Health and Emergency Services.

E-cigarette use is often painted as being a safer, healthier alternative to smoking tobacco. 

This isn’t necessarily the case though, because e-liquids may include nicotine, the addictive ingredient found in cigarettes.

One of the biggest brands of e-cigarettes today is Juul. It is so popular that it’s even become its own verb, i.e. “Juuling.” 

Their sleek USB shape makes them discreet and easy to conceal and, when activated, the puffs are barely noticeable. 

“[Juul] is a company that has a very high amount of nicotine. So, in one of their pods, if a child were to ingest that pod, it would be fatal if you were actually just to swallow it. It’s got the same amount of nicotine in one pod for Juul as you would have in a pack of cigarettes, so that’s a concern right there,” said Cordukes.

“We had a young person call about vaping cessation, and she was vaping four pods a day… one pod is the equivalent of 200 puffs. So, she was vaping the equivalent of four to five packs of cigarettes. That’s a huge amount of nicotine,” Cordukes said. 

“Prior to May 2018, it was illegal to have nicotine [in e-cigarette products], so there wasn’t a lot of Juul products in the Canadian marketplace – they were there illegally. Once it became legal, suddenly there was a push for Juul and all of the big companies to be selling nicotine.” 

What’s more is that e-cigarette use has been linked to outbreaks of lung injuries and pulmonary illnesses, both in Canada and the United States. 

So, while it’s being advertised as a healthier alternative to smoking or as an alternative form of nicotine replacement therapy, these claims are largely unfounded.

Prior to May 2018, it was illegal to have nicotine [in e-cigarette products], so there wasn’t a lot of Juul products in the Canadian marketplace – they were there illegally. Once it became legal, suddenly there was a push for Juul and all of the big companies to be selling nicotine.

– Ruth Cordukes, Public Health Nurse at the Region of Waterloo Public Health and Emergency Services

“Even in the absence of an outbreak, vaping would not be our number one strategy to quit smoking, it’s actually our last strategy,” said Cordukes. 

The thing is, many adolescent e-cigarette users have never even picked up a cigarette.

“I’ve had youth say to me ‘well, I would never smoke cigarettes, but I’ve tried vaping,’ because when they saw it, it looked really fun … and it smelled so good, so they weren’t getting the association that they have with cigarettes,” said Cordukes.

Essentially, vapes and other e-cigarettes are used to simulate smoking. And while “old-fashioned” smoking is on the decline, e-cigarette use is most certainly on the rise. But why?

Juul itself is advertised as an “alternative for adult smokers.” The website even states that adults who have never used nicotine should not be using their products. 

But according to the Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey (CTADS), 23 per cent of youth aged 15-19, and 13 per cent of adults aged 25 years or older, have tried e-cigarettes. This number has increased since the last survey in 2015. 

 “I think [for] our next study, we’re going to see quite a substantial increase in the smoking rate,” said Cordukes. 

“The other thing is that if you use nicotine before the age of 25, the same thing as if you use any drug before the age of 25, the harm to your brain may be permanent because it’s in the process of developing permanent structures,” explained Cordukes. 

“The harm depends on how often you use, how much you use, and what is the percentage of nicotine that you’re using. So our recommendation for youth is that if you’re under the age of 25, you should not be vaping, whether you’re a non-smoker or a smoker.” 

Nicotine is known to harm your memory and your ability to pay attention or concentrate. Withdrawal results in anxiety and lack of sleep, among other things. These are profound impacts –especially on students, explained Cordukes. 

Ultimately, Cordukes explained that e-cigarette users shouldn’t be blamed for their usage. 

“We’ve been working on tobacco [cessation] for decades. So I don’t think it’s helpful to blame anyone, certainly not to blame vapers. It’s just that we need to get the information out to the public,” Cordukes said. 

“Citizens should be able to go out and purchase an item and know exactly what it is they’re putting into their bodies, and what are the risks that are associated with that.”

The misinformation and unstudied effects of e-cigarettes is what causes the biggest harm to those who use, but if someone is looking to lower their risk, they may refer to the following advice.

Ultimately, make sure that your vape products aren’t modified. By changing the settings or heat levels of the product, you would be increasing the potential release of chemicals.

If you choose to purchase e-liquids, ensure that they are coming from a verifiable source, and aren’t homemade or from illegal or unregulated sources; this is considered high-risk behaviour.

Cordukes also says avoid vaping daily, because this will increase your dependency on the product, and also increases the number of chemicals you are ingesting. 

For those looking to quit their e-cigarette usage entirely, Cordukes suggests talking to a healthcare provider that you know who can suggest methods personalized to your needs. 

“When it comes to reducing your drug use, it’s really about thinking [it] through. ‘Where am I exposed to this drug? How can I reduce my exposure – my visual cues? How can I reduce the chances that someone is going to offer me to use their vape?’” Cordukes said. “‘How can I structure my life so that I have less temptation?’ And then the other piece is ‘how can I have a strategy in place for when I am faced with that choice?’”

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