Is Vaping Addictive?

There is a prevalent misconception that e-cigarettes are safer and less addictive than traditional, combustible cigarettes; however, research shows that while vape pens may contain fewer toxins than regular cigarettes, they are not without potential harm and health consequences.

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The Growing Popularity Of Vaping

The widespread use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) has snowballed in the US since its introduction to the market in 2006. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 8.1 million adults use e-cigarettes. Once marketed as an alternative to conventional smoking, little research suggests that e-cigarettes are safer than other tobacco products, and some studies even suggest that vaping is more addictive than smoking traditional cigarettes. As conventional cigarette smoking has markedly declined in recent years, the rise of e-cigarettes may compromise this progress as youth and young adult use skyrockets. 

What Is Vaping?

Vaping is the inhaling of a vapor produced by an e-cigarette, also known as vape pens, tank systems, mods, and electronic Nicotine delivery systems (ENDS). E-cigarettes come in many shapes and sizes, with most variations containing a battery, a heating compartment that turns liquid into a vapor or aerosol, and a place to hold the liquid or Nicotine salts.

The liquid used in e-cigarettes contains Nicotine, the addictive drug in combustible cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products, artificial flavorings, water, propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin base, and other additives. However, it can be challenging to know what is in vape juice, as studies have shown that some e-cigarettes marketed as “Nicotine-free” contain trace amounts of Nicotine. Beyond vape liquid, vape pens can also deliver Marijuana and other illicit substances. 

How Are E-Cigarettes Addictive?

E-cigarette products contain Nicotine, a highly addictive chemical compound found in tobacco plants. When an individual inhales vapor laced with Nicotine, the drug is quickly absorbed through the blood vessels lining the lungs. Studies show that Nicotine then reaches the brain in as little as 10 seconds. Over time, Nicotine impacts the way the brain works by increasing dopamine levels in the brain’s reward systems leading an individual to crave more of the substance. Moreover, vape pens can be just as addictive, if not more, as traditional cigarettes. A recent study found that most people who intended to use e-cigarettes to curb their Nicotine habit ended up continuing to use conventional and e-cigarettes. Another study published in the National Library of Medicine (NLM) found that e-cigarette use results in a higher Nicotine dependence among young adults than traditional cigarettes.

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Is Vaping Safer Than Smoking Cigarettes?

The short answer is a tentative yes and no, as vaping is not without dangers. When e-cigarettes were first introduced, they were marketed as a “safe and effective” alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes. And while e-cigarette aerosols generally contain fewer chemicals than the 7,000 toxins found in combustible cigarette smoke, harmful chemicals are still present. Aerosols from e-cigarettes still contain Nicotine, cancer-causing agents, heavy metals like lead and tin, and volatile organic compounds. 

Vaping can potentially prove beneficial to those trying to quit smoking if used as a complete substitute for cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products. Still, the Food and Drug Association (FDA) has not approved vape pens as smoking cessation devices. The bottom line is that while e-cigarettes have fewer chemicals than combustible cigarettes, the ingredients it does contain, including Nicotine, can still pose a health risk to individuals. 

Vaping Statistics: Who Is Using E-Cigarettes?

The demographics of those who vape range significantly, but some trends can help researchers identify who is most at risk of picking up a vape pen in the first place, how many of them have smoked traditional cigarettes before, and the specific health risks attributed to each group.

2.06

million

In 2021, over 2 million US middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

3.7

percent

In 2020, 3.7% of adults currently use vape pens.

23.6

percent

In 2019, 23.6% of current adult e-cigarette users have never smoked cigarettes.

What Are The Health Effects Of Vaping?

As e-cigarettes are still relatively new to the market, scientists are still learning about their long-term health effects. However, what can be concluded is that vape pens produce several toxins that, once inhaled, can cause irreversible lung damage and lung disease. For example, chemicals in e-cigarettes often contain acetaldehyde, acrolein, and formaldehyde. These aldehydes can cause lung disease and cardiovascular (heart) disease. Additionally, during adolescence, Nicotine can impact the developing brain by changing how synapses are formed in the brain, which can harm parts of the brain responsible for learning and attention. Additional health effects of vaping include: 

  • Increased risk of asthma exacerbations.
  • Acute lung injury from inhaling acrolein, a herbicide primarily used to kill weeds.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems.
  • Stunted adolescent and young adult brain development, which continues into the early to mid-20s.

Another risk to consider is a potential bodily injury caused by e-cigarettes. Defective vape pen batteries have been reported to cause fires and explosions, some of which have resulted in severe injuries. Most of the explosions happened when the e-cigarette batteries were being charged. Additionally, even secondhand emissions from e-cigarettes can cause harm to individuals as they are still inhaling chemicals.  

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Most At-Risk Populations

According to the CDC, e-cigarettes are the most commonly used tobacco products among youth and young adults, with more than 2 million using vape pens in the US. No matter how it is delivered, Nicotine is harmful to adolescents and young adults, but covert advertisements geared toward young people often downplay the dangers of vaping and often conflate the benefits. Companies often employ multiple marketing tactics to reach young individuals, including offering sponsorships, sponsoring events and music festivals, and most commonly, introducing appealing flavored vape liquid. 

Additionally, pregnant women are also more at risk of the health effects that vaping may cause. Studies show that Nicotine can harm the mother’s brain and lungs and the fetus’s developing brain and lungs. The CDC recommends that pregnant women abstain from all tobacco products while pregnant, including e-cigarettes. That being said, quitting Nicotine can be difficult, but there are resources for those looking to quit.

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Finding Help To Curb Nicotine Addiction

As vaping is so often marketed as a healthier alternative to traditional smoking, it can be difficult to notice when an individual compulsively uses vape pens despite negative health consequences, which underlies addiction. The CDC recommends creating a quit plan and speaking with a counselor to start the process of quitting vaping. Additionally, individuals can use medications like Varenicline and Bupropion to curb cravings and reduce withdrawal symptoms of Nicotine. Others may use Nicotine patches, gum, or lozenges which are forms of Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRTs) or a combination of prescription medicines and NRTs. For more information on treatment options for Nicotine addiction, contact a treatment provider today. 

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Carmen McCrackin

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  • Carmen McCrackin earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Auburn and has over 3 years of professional writing experience. Her passion for writing and educating others led her to a career in journalism with a focus on mental health and social justice topics. Her main mission is to be a platform for all voices and stories, and to provide tangible resources to those seeking recovery for themselves or loved ones.

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Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional:

David Hampton

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  • David embarked on his journey into sobriety in June of 2005, which led him to his current career path as a Certified Professional Addiction Recovery Coach in private practice in Greater Nashville. David is also a public speaker and the author of two books. David is cohost of the weekly Positive Sobriety Podcast, as well as being a frequent contributor to various articles and recovery based materials. As a member of the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), David works closely with area treatment centers, recovery orientated nonprofit organizations, as well as being a keynote speaker for various recovery-focused events.

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