We’ve probably all seen a friend or co-worker reach for an e-cigarette or vape pen and take a long inhale. Or maybe you’ve seen a young person checking out all the different vape juice flavors on display in a store – a scene that’s almost reminiscent of kids surveying a candy aisle. Vaping has become such a common sight in the last decade that it often doesn’t even merit a second glance. While medical experts have raised plenty of red flags about the health side effects, what about the big question: Is there a link between vaping and lung cancer?
Whether you consider it a vice or a pleasurable pastime, there’s no disputing the growing use of e-cigarette and vape products in the U.S. and beyond. World Health Organization statistics show that in 2011, about 7 million people around the world puffed on e-cigarettes. By 2018, that number had jumped to 41 million, and it’s estimated that tally will hit 55 million by the end of this year.
What’s the difference between regular smoking and vaping? If you light up a regular cigarette, you are inhaling the smoke of burning tobacco. That smoke contains about 7,000 different chemicals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in the U.S., cigarette smoke is linked to about 90% of all lung cancer deaths.
Vaping is different in that instead of inhaling tobacco smoke, users inhale the vapor from a liquid – called vape juice or e-liquid – that’s been heated inside a vape pen or other vaping device. These devices can look like tiny flash drives, rings or other handheld devices. Think of it like an inhaler that someone with asthma might take a deep pull from. But instead of delivering the vapor form of medicine to your lungs, vaping delivers a toxic mix of chemicals, doctors say.
What’s in vape juice? The majority of e-liquid and vape juice contains nicotine, even if it’s not listed on the label, the CDC has found. And the other ingredients typically include flavorings, additives that enhance the aroma, and an oily base layer. This oil is suspected of causing lung damage, according to doctors with John Hopkins Medicine. Once e-liquid is heated, other substances that can be found in it include:
- Diacetyl, a food additive that can damage the lungs when inhaled.
- Formaldehyde, which can cause lung disease.
- Acrolein, a chemical that can damage lungs and is often used as weed killer.
What about lung cancer? Several lung conditions – from pneumonia to collapsed lungs – have been linked to vaping, but the question of whether vaping causes lung cancer remains unanswered. Medical experts say vaping and e-cigarette products have not been studied long enough to know if there is a direct link to lung cancer, but say it’s a serious concern because of the array of chemicals vaping sends into the lungs.
Vaping and teens. The rising use of vaping products among children and teens has healthcare workers very concerned. The 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) found more than 2 million middle school and high school students in the U.S. used e-cigarette products this year. The national survey also found:
- Nearly 85% of children and teens who vape are using flavored products.
- 1 in 4 users said they vape daily.
- Disposable devices are the most commonly-used type.
Parents who think their children might be vaping can learn more about how vaping works, what the different devices look like, and how to talk to their children about the risks of e-cigarettes by checking this advice sheet put out by the CDC.