Almost two years ago, we wrote a short article on the FDA regulation of a nascent industry, one that has the FDA sounding the alarm regarding contamination from carcinogens and the vaporizing of metal nanoparticles. Despite our concerns – and those of the FDA – this industry is still around, growing, and has set its smoky eye upon a new generation of customers: millennials. According to VapeMentors.com, an industry coaching community for those pursuing their own chokehold on the 21st century smoker, 60% of potential customers are ‘Millennials,’ with ‘Gen Xers’ making up the other 30%, and ‘Boomers’ coming in on the tail end with a 10% market share.(1) And this market, VapeMentor notes, is already valued at $2 billion and set to rise above that of tobacco (cited at $35 billion) within the next decade. So given the tension between oversight agencies such as the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and trade bodies such as the American E-Liquid Manufacturing Standards Association (AEMSA) are we any safer now than we were in 2016?
And, for those readers requiring a quick and snappy response, the short answer is…maybe? With upward of 4% of the adult population of the U. S. vaping, the new technology that allows for an electronic cigarette/vape pen looks to have succeeded in resuscitating a fast-dying industry, breathing new life into one suffocating on its own second-hand smoke. Vaping.com, an online retailer of vape equipment and liquids, suggests that with a worldwide fraternity of approximately 20 million users, there are ‘a WHOLE LOT of people vaping these days! […] That’s not bad for an industry that’s barely older than the iPhone!’(2, original emphasis)
And one factor fueling this rise in sales is the availability of flavored e liquids that seem designed to entice ever younger customers to the practice.
With flavors such as cotton candy, lemonade, pop rocks, and gummy bears – not to mention the approximately 240 new flavors being added each month – use of vapeware increased ten-fold in high school students between 2011 and 2015, according to statistics from the National Youth Tobacco Survey.(3) And when questioned on their preferences, 81% of high school aged responders said that their first products were selected ‘because they come in flavors I like.’(4)
So apart from a bubble-gum array of flavor choices, why vape and what are the benefits? Returning to the VapeMentors.com analysis, setting aside the under-age users the three main demographics have very different reasons for choosing to take up the habit. For Millennials, it’s about being cool, fun, or ‘hip,’ although we doubt they’d use that exact work to describe their drive. Whether tech geeks, goths, or gym rats (sub-sets of Millennials identified in the analysis), the recent decrease in social acceptance of traditional tobacco products contributes to the uptick in uptake for this demographic. For Gen-Xers, on the other hand, it is less about being ‘hip’ and more about facing a certain reality. Characterized as ‘mid-racers’ by VapeMentors, these customers are beginning to feel the first impacts of creeping older age and are looking to adopt small but incremental steps towards a healthier lifestyle. And for Boomers, well VapeMentors is dismissively cynical: ‘Imagine former (or still) hippies, thinking they will stay young and live forever but are continuously getting shocked by reading obituaries of those the same age or even younger.’(5)
Yep, we’ll just leave that right there.
So are the benefits of vaping worth the effort to switch? According to a longer term study published in 2017, the absence of tobacco makes the health impacts of e-cigarettes attractive to those accustomed to ‘lighting up.’ The study, funded in the United Kingdom by Cancer Research UK, found that user exposure to carcinogens and other toxins fell in those who vape as opposed to those who smoke, with a suggested cancer risk for e-cigarette users of just 1% that of traditional cigarettes. In fact, according to an article in The Guardian, ‘ a broad consensus endorsed by many health organizations has existed since 2016 encouraging smokers to try vaping. This year additional organizations like the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association issued new reports also pointing to e-cigarettes as a positive choice for smokers trying to quit.’(6)
As reported in Mens Health, some of the flavors in eliquids can cause significant changes to pulmonary capacity following exposure.
But what about the negatives associated with this addiction? Well, of course there’s that – addiction. With flavored vape liquids targeted at ‘new’ – read ‘young’ users – addiction is a likely outcome for the still developing brain, bringing with it the potential for long-term neurological impacts and ‘teeing up […] susceptible brains for addiction to other drugs like cocaine.’(7) Then there’s the matter of arterial hardening. As reported in Mens Health, some of the flavors in eliquids can cause significant changes to pulmonary capacity following exposure. Cinnamon flavors, for example, ‘kept the cells from contracting 24 hours after coming in contact, and the clove, floral, and citrus flavorings caused the cells to make the heart beat faster.’(8)
And if the chemicals in the vape pen don’t get your heart beating fast, exploding devices just might.
Writing in Vaping.com, Alastair Cohen notes: ‘Ever since the introduction of e-cigarettes, vaping usage has exploded around the world.’(9) And, in light of recent events, this seems like an especially unfortunate turn of phrase. Last month, a Florida man became the first person to die as a direct result of vaping when his device exploded, embedding fragments of itself in his skull. Tallmadge D’Elia, a 38-year old television producer from St. Petersburg, FL, was also found to have burns to 80% of his body when his vape pen exploded and set fire to his home. The problem was not in the vape pen itself, but in the lithium-ion (‘li-ion’) batteries used to power it. In the same way as gadget manufacturer Samsung found out, lithium-ion batteries can present serious challenges when used to power small, hand-held personal devices. As the manufacturer of the Galaxy Note 7 which was famously banned on aircraft and recalled due to spontaneous combustion, Samsung learned that, while the advantages of lithium battery use are legion, the disadvantages can be costly. In addition to the high energy density, low maintenance, and lower rate of self-discharge come transportation woes, over-charging concerns, shorter life cycle, and higher manufacturing cost. And, due to the way in which lithium-ion batteries work, the risk of explosion.
A typical li-ion cell has an electrode on each end – one anode, one cathode, with electrolytes in the middle. When the cell is in charge mode, the electrolytes move to the anode end, migrating to the cathode end when in discharge mode. But the problem resides in the rate at which the electrolytes move. If they migrate to the anode end too fast, platelets can form which, in time, create a short circuit. This leads to over-heating of the flammable electrolytes and ultimately the risk of explosion and/or fire.
The vast majority of vaping devices on the market carry the same fire risk as other products that use lithium-ion batteries, such as cellphones and laptops.
And this may have been the cause of the accident that killed D’Elia who was using a vape pen made by Smok-E Mountain Mech Works, a company based in the Philippines. In an interview with ABC Action News, the company claimed the battery to be the likely culprit in the D’Elia explosion, but also added that it could have been the mouthpiece – indicating a certain indecision on its part. Litigation-related confusion notwithstanding, even if the pen itself was working correctly, it was what’s termed a ‘mechanical mod’ which, unlike the majority of units, allows the user increased access to the battery, and therefore to voltage control. Gregory Conley of the American Vaping Association commented: ‘“Millions of adults use vapor products regularly and tragic events like this are rare. […] The vast majority of vaping devices on the market carry the same fire risk as other products that use lithium-ion batteries, such as cellphones and laptops.”’(10)
But this is scarcely a comforting comparison. As we’ve ascertained in terms of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 woes, cellphone batteries are not a low risk component and the U. S. Fire Administration received reports on no fewer than 195 separate incidents between 2009 and 2016 in which vapeware exploded and/or caught fire. Of these, 133 resulted in acute injuries, and 38 of theme were categorized as severe.(11) Moreover, this issue is not confined to the U. S. within the reach of the FDA. In France, for instance, a nightclub owner was severely burned when an e-cigarette in his pocket exploded and, across the Channel in the United Kingdom, a car charger adapter is thought to have caused an e-cigarette explosion that melted a significant portion of a car seat.(12) Fortunately no-one was injured in that incident and the car was not in motion at the time.
So in the face of seemingly random explosions what guidelines does the FDA offer to safeguard a device that’s routinely transported and used in close proximity to the body, but which can be so lethal? In essence, it comes down to a very short list, as follows:
- using vapes with safety features, like protection against overcharging
- keeping your vape covered and away from loose coins and batteries
- using only the approved charger that came with the vape pen to charge it
- replacing batteries if they get damaged or wet
- not charging your vape overnight (13)
Not a hugely satisfying or reassuring list. So ultimately perhaps it is might be safer to take the motivations of the Boomers just that bit further, to look nicotine directly in its smoky eye, and finally stub it out once and for all? Perhaps, in a world of ‘lesser evils,’ of Big Tobacco and Vape Culture, of fuggy gray smoke and wispy water vapor, quitting the habit is really the only safe option.
Do you vape? Have you any experiences of e-cig explosions? Are you concerned about being around those who carry vape pens? We’d love to know your thoughts.