It’s advertised as the best way to kick that bad habit of smoking, but critics say it may kick-start a new generation of smokers.
The latest generation of e-cigarettes, also known as vaporizer pens or “vapes,” has kicked up a debate about its impact on those who use them.
“Vaping,” as it’s now commonly referred to, involves a device with a battery-powered heating element that warms a liquid turning it into vapor. People can pick the level of nicotine or hash oil, for marijuana. Similar to a hookah, the user can also choose a flavor.
“You are vaporizing a liquid-based substance as opposed to burning vegetation, which is overall better for the lungs,” explained Frank De-Levi. “The vape scene is growing everyday in the Bay Area.”
De-Levi just opened up “Only Vapor” in downtown San Bruno, the latest shop in the Bay Area to sell the vapes. He said this is the best way to quit smoking cigarettes, adding he knows this from personal experience and from the stories of his loved ones.
“My brother had been smoking for 20 years. He picked one up, and he hasn’t picked up a pack since,” De-Levi said.
But it’s who is picking up the devices that is worrying some health experts. A recent CDC poll revealed that the number of middle and high school students surveyed who admitted to trying vapes doubled in just one year, to nearly two million in 2012.
For Phil Boissiere, a psychotherapist in San Francisco who always talks to students at local high schools, that is the biggest red flag.
“A kid could use it anywhere, passing between classrooms, in the bathroom quickly,” Boissiere said.
He said teens have even confessed to playing a type of “game” – using vapes for both nicotine and marijuana in the same room as their parents.
“Without mom and dad catching on,” explained Boissiere. “There are bragging rights: hide where you can, pull it off, who you can do it in front of without getting caught.”
It’s gotten so popular, people and businesses are hosting “vape meets” where users show off their devices. Candace Garcia, a counselor for students in Santa Clara County, said she’s noticed a boom in popularity of vapes in the last year. Garcia said she’s also noticed an alarming trend of girls turning vaporizers into accessories.
“It’s like if you’re pulling out lipstick, you want to look like you match,” Garcia said. “So with this e-cigarette or vaporizer pen, if it’s hot pink and you have a hot pink purse, it looks cool. So I’ve seen it a lot.”
The color choice isn’t the only thing that continues to grow; the technology is also advancing. That leaves some worried about not one, but two addictions.
“It’s made a cigarette look like an iPod, it’s made it sexy again,” Boissiere said. “We all are a little addicted to technology. Whenever you or I pull out our smartphone, there’s a little release of dopamine. When people use drugs and alcohol, there’s a large release of dopamine. And you’ve got a double whammy.”
And perhaps, it’s what’s luring in first-time smokers. The same CDC study found about 160,000 of those students who experimented with vaporizers had never smoked an actual cigarette.
“Even if they aren’t interested in the drug aspect, they might be interested in the technology aspect of it,” said Maria Lara, a school counselor for districts in Sunnyvale and Cupertino. “And that creates a whole nother variable to deal with in this trend.”
San Francisco General Hospital Doctor Neal Benowitz is also a nicotine expert with UC San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control, Research and Education. He said the latest generation of e-cigarettes or vapes are far less toxic compared to the first ones that came out 10 years ago.
“I have to say that more recent products are much cleaner so analyzes of products nowadays show much lower level of contaminants,” Benowitz said. “They still have some toxins and there are still some concerns, but most likely, e-cigarette users are right that e-cig use, if they stop smoking, will be much less harmful.”
Still, he has concerns about impact to the overall population.
“People don’t see as many people smoking anymore," Benowitz said. "All of a sudden, people are carrying around e-cigs so smoking behavior becomes renormalized.”
Beyond that, Benowitz said there’s a major lack of regulation which pushes many questions to the forefront, namely safety.
“Some of the cartridges can be really big and contain a lot of nicotine," he said. "So in theory, if someone were suicidal or a child got ahold of them, they could get a potentially lethal dose of nicotine.”
For De-Levi, his personal experience is all the proof he needs.
“I’ve lost that smoker’s cough,” he said, blowing out some vapor. “I feel more clear. So an expert can tell me whatever they want, what I feel in my body is going to be the ultimate dictator.”