Healthy lungs are at risk—what can you do as a clinician to help patients quit vaping?
Vaping—one word, but not one behavior. Vaping is a method of substance inhalation that delivers anything from blueberry-flavored vitamin D to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) into the body. While health professionals often refer to electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) and vaping synonymously, e-cigarettes represent only a small fraction of the growing market for vaping products available to consumers of all ages. So, why all the fuss?
We know that breathing in tar and asbestos is risky, but what about zinc, lead, chromium, manganese, and copper?1 All have been identified as components in various vaping products (ie, e-liquids, vape juice), although the long-term health consequences of these ingredients are not well-defined. E-liquid ingredients that are safe to be ingested and processed in the gut may be thought to be benign (eg, vegetable glycerin [VG] and propylene glycol [PG]), but may cause harm in the lungs.2 Beyond lung damage, aerosol inhalation may increase cardiovascular risk.3
Nicotine vaping products increase the risk for the same health consequences as any other nicotine exposure: subsequent development of a nicotine addiction; priming for use of other substances; changes in attention, cognition, and impulse control; and increased risk of developing mood disorders.2 The risk is compounded by the ready availability of vape juices and e-liquids with high concentrations of nicotine, beyond what is found in traditional tobacco products.4
Young children and developing fetuses may also be prone to indirect health consequences of vaping products. There are reports of vaping liquids being swallowed and absorbed through the skin and eyes, resulting in poisoning. Fetal exposure can result in multiple adverse health consequences, including sudden infant death syndrome.3
So Why Vape?
Given the potential for harm, why do individuals vape nicotine and other harmful chemicals for purposes other than smoking cessation? Among youth, the most common reason for vaping is curiosity.5 Vaping may be seen an act that brings social benefit—friends use what their friends use.6 Available online and in neighborhood stores, vaping products are perceived as both fashionable and convenient.5 Vape systems can be discreet (ie no visible aerosol) or flashy (ie production of large vape clouds). With advanced features such as voice control, accent lighting, and Bluetooth compatibility, there is a vaping device to appeal to almost any subculture and customer.
The ability to customize vape systems and liquids carries additional risks. Most samples obtained from the e-cigarette liquid of individuals being treated for e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI), contained THC. Vitamin E acetate was identified in all samples, and glycerin, propylene glycol, diacetyl, aldehydes, formaldehyde, terpenes, organic compounds, and trace metals may have contributed to the over 2800 EVALI cases and 68 associated deaths.7,8 In our investigation of college student vaping using data collected from the 2018 to 2019 Health Minds Study survey, we found that almost 1 in 4 students who vaped used THC,9 and a study of the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that about 1 in 4 of the middle and high school student sample had vaped marijuana.10
Is this Behavior Legal?
The short answer is yes. A few US states, tribal governments, and some countries have broadened prohibitions against smoking in public places to include vaping, but most have not. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates flavors, predominantly when marketed to children and youth, sold without age-verification or without limiting number.11 Menthol, previously considered an adult flavor, is now banned per the FDA.12
While vaping products are being used by nonsmokers, vaping has utility as a smoking cessation aid for adult consumers.13,14 Given the undeniable harms of smoking, vaping provides an option for people who are ready to quit smoking.13,14 However, among youth, vaping is more often initiated as an addition to, or a gateway to smoking; in one typical study, only 7.3% of 12th graders who vaped did so for smoking cessation15 and people with dual use (smoking and vaping) are exposed to increased harms.16
“Paul” was a smoker for over 30 years; despite use of numerous quit methods, Paul’s frequent attempts to stop smoking were curtailed by his anxiety and disrupted concentration. Finally, his primary care provider convinced him to give vaping a 2-week try. Cynical about anything helping, Paul was relieved when he discovered vaping worked for him. In addition, he was thrilled to find products that were within his budget. But vaping has not been 100% panacea. One day while working at his computer, Paul felt a sudden flash of pain and his pant leg burst into fire. A visit to the emergency department and a skin graft were required after his battery exploded in his pocket. Nevertheless, Paul is still vaping. He says he will never return to smoking cigarettes, although he misses it. He is scheduled to see a pulmonologist; he is certain that vaping has been better for his health than the 2 packs a day he used to smoke. However, family and friends are concerned, he reports, because he is never without his vape pen, and he realizes he hits it with no conscious knowledge of doing so, regardless of where he is.
Assessing the clinical significance of vaping. Talking to a patient about vaping may require some investigation (Table). Frequency of use and the types of products used influence the safety and clinical significance of the behavior. If the client is distressed by their behavior, experiences functional impairment, or reports poor health outcomes including symptoms of tobacco or cannabis use disorders, you may decide to provide assistance and help your client quit, or reduce, vaping behavior.
Resources to help your client quit vaping. The US Department of Health and Human Services17,18 and the FDA19 have published resources to assist with smoking cessation, as have most US states.20 In-person and online classes and/or support groups, tailored text messaging services, a free QuitGuide app, and information related to nicotine replacement products are available. Patients can consult and access these resources when they want to quit smoking or vaping. While vaping cessation research is scant21-23 and is primarily limited to nicotine vaping, methods used to quit are likely amenable to those used in smoking cessation.16 US Preventive Services Task Force recommendations for clinicians are to ask about use, advise quitting, and provide behavioral interventions and pharmacotherapy.24
Special Populations. Teens and adolescents may require niched interventions, whether consuming nicotine via vaping or other methods.21-23 To this end, the Truth Initiative25 funded the development of a text-to-quit mobile application as an addition to their quit program for teens. This program is based on research of vaping patterns, quit attempts, and cessation motivation; interventions should be tailored to address social influences, outcome expectancies, and intentions to quit.21 Expecting mothers also need a tailored approach to quit vaping; counseling techniques, including relaxation activities,26 and monetary incentives improve outcomes.27 Nicotine Replacement Therapy may also be helpful.28
Dr Striley is an associate professor and Director in psychiatric epidemiology at the University of Florida. Sara Nutley is a PhD student in epidemiology at the University of Florida.
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2. US Department of Health and Human Services. E-Cigarette use among youth and young adults. A report of the surgeon general. US Department of Health and Human Services; 2016. https://e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov/documents/2016_SGR_Full_Report_non-508.pdf
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11. FDA finalizes enforcement policy on unauthorized flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes that appeal to children, including fruit and mint. US Food and Drug Administration. March 24, 2020. Accessed May 11, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-finalizes-enforcement-policy-unauthorized-flavored-cartridge-based-e-cigarettes-appeal-children
12. FDA commits to evidence-based actions aimed at saving lives and preventing future generations of smokers. US Food and Drug Administration. April 29, 2021. Accessed May 11, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-commits-evidence-based-actions-aimed-saving-lives-and-preventing-future-generations-smokers
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17. QuitGuide. Smokefree.gov. Accessed May 11, 2021. https://smokefree.gov/tools-tips/apps/quitguide
18. Tobacco information and tips for quitting smoking. BeTobaccoFree. Accessed May 11, 2021. https://betobaccofree.hhs.gov/home
19. Smoking—Medicines to help you quit. US Food and Drug Administration. 2019. Accessed May 11, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/consumers/free-publications-women/smoking-medicines-help-you-quit
20. Smoking cessation information & programs. Tobacco Free Florida. Accessed May 11, 2021. https://tobaccofreeflorida.com/
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23. Amato MS, Bottcher MM, Cha S, et al. “It’s really addictive and I’m trapped:” A qualitative analysis of the reasons for quitting vaping among treatment-seeking young people. Addict Behav. 2021;112:106599.
24. US Preventive Services Task Force, Krist AH, Davidson KW, et al. Interventions for tobacco smoking cessation in adults, including pregnant persons: US preventive services task force recommendation statement. JAMA. 2021;325(3):265.
25. This is quitting. The Truth Initiative. Accessed May 11, 2021. https://www.thetruth.com/article/this-is-quitting
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