Putting a lid on vaping

When vaping arrived on the scene several years ago it seemed like a promising alternative to smoking, a way for smokers to break their habit in a relatively harmless way.  After all, inhaling steam would be so much better than smoke.

But as more becomes known about vaping,  the more calls come for caution.  While vaping is being heavily studied, much is  unknown about its dangers and risks, especially from long-term exposure.

It can be safely concluded that vaping is considerably less dangerous than traditional smoking.  Although it is usually not known exactly what toxins are in e-cigarettes, apart often from nicotine, there are far fewer.

But just because e-cigarettes are not as bad as common cigarettes does not mean they  are free from significant hazards.  Nicotine is bad for health, notably when it raises blood pressure, spikes adrenaline and the chance of heart attacks. It is  also considered damaging to adolescent brains.

The dangers of other toxins might be better understood in the years ahead.  It took decades before the full dangers of smoking were recognised.

The glamour should be coming off e-cigarettes, in part because they — through the nicotine — are as addictive as the traditional variety.  It could well be they are even more so because higher nicotine doses can be easier to obtain. Vaping has caused division among health specialists because some still see it as an effective way to break the smoking addiction when other methods have failed.

Others see it as a potential ‘‘gateway’’  to smoking.  In practice, and given what has happened in the United States, it would seem there is truth and falsehood to each view.

Hapai Te Hauora, which holds national contracts in tobacco control and working to reduce smoking in Maori and Pacifica,  for example, believes vaping to be a significant quitting tool.  It does not want it to be treated like tobacco, as is proposed by the Government.

E-cigarette use in the United States among teens has steamed ahead.  Cartridges have been often flavoured in ways to appeal to youth, vaping can be cheaper and there is a belief it is much less harmful.  E-cigarettes can be used surreptitiously,  being  largely odourless.

This sudden vaping increase began as teen smoking rates continued their steady fall. Then this decline abruptly stopped. It has, therefore, been argued some of these nicotine-addicted youngsters could be moving on to smoking. The evidence is not  clear.  Nevertheless, another new large cohort is addicted to nicotine.  E-cigarettes might help some people stop smoking and might encourage others to start.

Against this background, the caution of the New Zealand Government is welcome.

Its announcement last week outlined plans to change the Smoke-free Environments Act next year.  Fundamentally, vaping would be treated in a similar way to smoking.  It would be barred from bars, restaurants, sport clubs and workplaces and marketing would be restricted.

Those flavours and colours that appeal to youth would be banned. E-cigarette users  inhale  a lot more  than just steam.  There are all sorts of particles in the vapor, and others in public or work places should be spared secondhand exposure. Since the modern e-cigarette was invented in 2003, vaping numbers around the world have risen exponentially.  They total many millions.

Earlier positive reports, including from medical sources, are more frequently tempered these days.  Strong concern has come from the likes of the US Surgeon General and the World Health Organisation.

There is a widespread recognition  more research is needed on both the long-term chemical effects of vaping and on how, by whom and when and where it is used. Many countries already ban vaping while others regulate its use.   New Zealand’s precautionary approach is appropriate.  It is here to stay but is far from harmless.    

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