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Vaping: 5 things you should know about the controversial smoking alternative

Vaping is even more addictive than smoking because the concentrated liquid is more quickly metabolized, says one expert.

Vaping has become hugely popular among teens and young adults.
Vaping has become hugely popular among teens and young adults.
AP Photo

An Illinois patient who contracted a serious lung disease after vaping has died and Illinois health officials consider it the first death in the United States linked to the smoking alternative that has become popular with teens and young adults, it was reported last week.

In addition, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently noted that 193 people in 22 states have contracted severe respiratory illnesses after vaping. However, they said a clear-cut common cause of the illnesses hasn’t been identified and that they are being called “potential cases” that are still under investigation.

All of the sickened have been teens or adults who had used an electronic cigarette or some other kind of vaping device. Doctors say the illnesses resemble an inhalation injury, with the lungs apparently reacting to a caustic substance. So far, infectious diseases have been ruled out.

Some state health department and news reports suggest many of the cases of lung problems involve tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes psychological effects.

Boston University public health professor Michael Siegel said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is being “unnecessarily vague” about describing the injuries as simply vaping-related when many people might have been injured by vaping THC oil.

“Based on what we know now, I think there’s enough to tell people: Don’t vape THC oils — especially products that are bought off the street,” said Siegel. “There are certain things the agency could be recommending right now that could potentially save lives and prevent this from happening by being much more specific.”

The use of electronic cigarettes — the battery-powered devices that heat liquid-based nicotine into an inhalable vapor — lately seems as controversial as smoking regular cigarettes. Here are a few facts you should know about vaping:

1. It may be safer than smoking. The inhalation of burning tobacco is well-established to be carcinogenic. That means smoking can cause cancer. It is established science. Smoking contributes in a major way to almost all cancers, especially lung cancer and heart disease. Heart disease and cancer are the top two causes of death in the United States and kill about half of the people who die.

2. It’s very addictive. Expect serious nicotine withdrawal if you try to quit. Vaping is even more addictive than smoking because the concentrated liquid is more quickly metabolized, says Dr. Malissa Barbosa, an addiction medicine physician. Barbosa says nicotine also is more difficult to quit than alcohol or any of the drugs used by her patients. Receptors in the brain ”grab onto the nicotine molecule because it’s similar to something we make naturally,” she says, and it’s more difficult to release from the body.

3. It has a growing group of critics. Vaping was welcomed by many in the public health community as a potentially more attractive and effective option for people who had struggled unsuccessfully to quit smoking. Still, the “for” and “against” lines were drawn pretty early, and became even more pronounced after tobacco companies entered the market. When teens, who had never smoked cigarettes, started vaping the small, trendy Juul devices, the reputation of the entire industry was tarnished.

4. The devices can be used for marijuana, which adds risk. While parents have good reason to be alarmed when they discover their teenage children are vaping, it’s important to consider what exactly is in the device. Some of the recent serious cases of lung problems involved vaping of marijuana oil that had likely been contaminated. Along with the health risks of this contamination, there is additional potential that teens will ingest an extremely high level of THC, which is harmful to developing brains. It can lead to cognition loss and even psychosis.

5. It may be an effective stop-smoking method. People who use vaping to stop smoking are twice as likely to quit as they are using other ”nicotine replacement therapy” options, according to a randomized control trial study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February. Nicotine replacement therapy includes gums, lozenges and patches. There are risks with other solutions, too. Chantix, one of the most widely used prescription drugs for smoking cessation, comes with such serious side effects that drug safety advocate Kim Witczak fought the removal of its “black box” warning about the risk of suicidal thoughts, violence and aggression.

Contributing: Associated Press

Read more at usatoday.com.