Vaping vs Smoking: Side Effects, Benefits, and Risks

Vaping – using e-cigarettes instead of conventional cigarettes to deliver a nicotine boost is increasingly popular. It’s touted as a healthier alternative to smoking tobacco, but is it really all that much better, and are there any risks to vaping?

by Elaine Francis, R.N.

Vaping – using e-cigarettes instead of conventional cigarettes to deliver a nicotine boost is increasingly popular. It’s touted as a healthier alternative to smoking tobacco, but is it really all that much better, and are there any risks to vaping?

What is vaping?

There are a range of different electronic devices which vapourise a small amount of a liquid, usually containing nicotine. This vapour is then inhaled, much the same as smoking a cigarette. Nicotine is an addictive substance but vapes are often touted as a less-unhealthy alternative to smoking, avoiding many of the harmful substances created by inhaling the smoke from burning leaf tobacco.

While nicotine is the most common active ingredient in vape fluids, some contain THC, one of the active components in cannabis. They also contain various substances to make flavour and scent the fluid, and to control the viscosity of the fluid and the way it vapourises.

The differences between vaping and smoking

Vaping was originally intended to be a nicotine replacement therapy for people trying to quit smoking. As nicotine is the addictive substance in cigarettes, various methods of delivering nicotine without the accompanying harmful chemicals and particles in burning tobacco have been developed to help beat the cravings and reduce the number of toxins entering the lungs.

Cigarette smoking means sucking the smoke from burning tobacco leaves and inhaling it into the lungs. This smoke is known to contain lots of very harmful compounds including tar, lead, arsenic, and cancer-causing free radicals and other toxins. Cigarette smoking has a long and well-evidenced relationship with various cancers, heart disease and other serious diseases.

Vaping requires an electronic device to heat and vapourise a small amount of fluid which usually contains nicotine as well as stabilisers and flavouring, which is inhaled into the lungs. Some of the substances in this vapour are also harmful to health, though vaping is generally considered significantly less dangerous than traditional tobacco products.

Is vaping less harmful than smoking tobacco?

We know that cigarette smoking is incredibly harmful, increasing a person’s risk of developing many different forms of cancer and other serious diseases. Inhaling nicotine by vaping rather than smoking tobacco does mean that some of the most harmful chemicals are avoided. Tobacco smoke contains particles and compounds like tar, arsenic, and carbon monoxide.

One of the most significant concerns about vaping is that we have very little experience with the longer-term effects of inhaling some of the chemicals in vape fluids. The main active ingredient is nicotine, and nicotine does have both short- and long-term effects on the body. There are also many other substances that can be isolated from the vapour inhaled when vaping, and some of these are known to be harmful. However, the carcinogenic (cancer-causing) impact of inhaled commercial nicotine vapour products is significantly less than that of tobacco smoking.

Another concern regarding vaping is that the stringent laws surrounding tobacco advertising and sales do not always apply to vaping paraphernalia, and this also varies widely from one country to another around the world. Tobacco smoking has been subject to huge campaigns to try and reduce its popularity, and there are few people who do not associate smoking with serious diseases like cancer. Vaping, on the other hand, does not have the same ingrained negative connotations, and vape fluids are even designed in a range of flavours and scents, many of which replicate the kind of sweets and treats of childhood. There is also a risk that people will both vape and use cigarettes, negating any of the possible benefits of using a vape as a less-harmful alternative to tobacco.

Vaping, just like smoking, delivers the same nicotine buzz and there is no evidence that the nicotine in a vape is any less addictive than that in cigarettes. In addition, lack of general awareness of the possible harms of vaping, the range and appearance of devices, and the appealing smell and taste mean that there is a growing trend for younger people to start vaping.

Secondhand smoke – vapes vs cigarettes

One of the reasons smokers might switch to vaping is to protect the health of those around them. We know that second-hand smoke – breathing in the leftover or exhaled smoke from someone else’s cigarette – can be as harmful as smoking, especially for babies and children living with smokers. There is less evidence surrounding the effects of second-hand vape fluid vapour, but we do know that there are harmful elements to the vapour, and that it is undoubtedly breathed in by those people in close proximity to the person vaping.

People generally think that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking, which influences the behaviour of vapers. Without a good understanding of the potential health risks of second-hand vaping, people are more likely to vape indoors and around children, not realising that this can have potentially harmful effects.

The long-term effects

People have been smoking, chewing, and inhaling tobacco since time immemorial, so we have decades worth of modern clinical research on the health impacts of using tobacco. There is a wealth of irrefutable evidence that smoking causes mouth, throat, and lung cancers, and even contributes less directly to other forms of cancer. Smoking increases our risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, and other serious health problems. But what about vaping?

Vape fluids have been widely available since around 2006, and so some of the longer-term effects are probably yet to be discovered. But in laboratory conditions, many of the changes indicating pre-cancerous cells occur similarly in smokers’ lung cells and vapers’ lung cells, compared to non-nicotine users.

One of the most significant concerns about vaping is that it particularly appeals to younger people and those who see it as a less unhealthy alternative to smoking. While levels of tobacco use were falling in younger people long before the commercial availability of vapes and e-cigarettes, the uptake of these alternatives is now relatively high. This means that although the original intention of these kind of nicotine replacement devices was as an alternative to the known harms of smoking, it is now a potential gateway to smoking and being taken up by people as a habit in its own right, even by those who would likely never have taken up traditional smoking.

Vaping even has a direct impact on oral health. The vapour produced by e-cigarettes and similar devices is relatively viscous, meaning that it sticks to and coats the body tissues it comes into contact with. It therefore has a clear link to dental decay, with smokers and vapers alike having significantly worse oral health than people who don’t use any nicotine products.

Cost implications – is it worth it?

Although not without its own risks, vaping is still thought to be considerably better – or rather, less bad – than smoking tobacco. The cost implications are variable, and although vaping can be cheaper than smoking cigarettes, it can also be much more expensive, depending on the tastes and demands of the consumer. As well as the price, the environmental impact of vaping is high, particularly with single-use devices containing disposable lithium batteries.

Vaping – fact and fiction

There is a lot of misinformation out there about vaping and similar nicotine inhalation devices. With so many websites and services having their own agenda, it’s hard to know what to believe. There are thousands of websites trying to sell vape products and keen to play down the negatives, while on the other hand there are always people scaremongering and predicting the very worst in any situation. So what’s the truth, and what are the myths when it comes to vaping?

Myth 1: Vaping isn’t bad for you

When you vape, you’re directly delivering a range of chemicals directly to the inside of your lungs. Some of these are harmful, others are not, but it seems like a no-brainer – breathing in anything that isn’t fresh air isn’t good for you. Vaping is, however, considered to be much less harmful than cigarette smoking, so if you’re just comparing one harmful thing to another less harmful thing, vaping is preferable – this doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to start.

Myth 2: It’s cheap

The price of vaping ranges hugely, even within the same area. If you use a reusable device, there is an initial outlay, as well as a future of buying the fluid. If you use disposable e-cigarettes, there is a higher ongoing expense and the environmental implications of packaging and single-use batteries.

Myth 3: It isn’t addictive

The addictive substance in cigarettes is nicotine, and we know how difficult it can be to stop smoking. Vape fluids contain the same substance, and the amount of nicotine can vary from one range to another, meaning that vaping can be just as addictive as smoking. One of the possible benefits of vaping, however, is that the concentration of nicotine in vape fluids can be more easily measured and altered than in cigarettes, meaning that there is the potential to wean off the addictive component of vaping.

Myth 4: It’s okay to vape indoors

Firstly, there are clear health risks from contact with the vapour from vaping devices. Vaping in enclosed spaces means that these substances linger in the air longer, being breathed in by anyone close by. Secondly, it may not be legal in public places. The laws on vaping vary around the world, with some countries imposing a total ban, others having strict regulations on the sale and possession of vape devices, and other having no rules on vaping at all. As a general rule, where smoking is banned, vaping is also restricted. Places with smoking bans for indoor public spaces are unlikely to allow vaping indoors, though this may be an organisational decision rather than a legal ruling. Either way, it’s worth knowing the rules in your own area and when you travel.

Myth 5: You know what you’re getting with vape fluids

Regulation of vaping products is very variable around the world, and while you may live in a country with good transparency and regulation over the contents and ingredients list, lots more products are available online, sometimes with attractive prices. These can contain various ingredients known to cause health problems.

Myth 6: Vaping is just as bad as smoking

While it’s certainly not a healthy alternative, smoking is still leagues ahead when it comes to unhealthy habits. Vaping is considered, when the ingredients and compounds they produce when vapourised and inhaled are all taken into account, around 95% less bad than smoking. But smoking is very, very bad for you so if you can possibly avoid both, that’s best.

It’s never too late to quit – whether you’re smoking or vaping

The World Health Organisation do not consider vaping an effective way of quitting smoking. Switching from smoking to vaping means swapping one addictive and potentially harmful habit for another, and while some of the health implications may be reduced, there are safer forms of nicotine replacement therapy to help people stop smoking. However, users of e-cigarettes and other similar devices are exposed to fewer – though different – harmful substances than cigarette smokers.

Getting help to stop smoking has a good effect on the likelihood of success, and there is lots of support out there, from professionals, online, and peer support groups. Quitting smoking can be incredibly difficult, but the alternative is even more difficult in the long run; developing serious, even terminal disease and harming the health of those around you.

There is a wide range of services and aids to help people stop smoking. Nicotine replacement therapies such as patches, inhalators or gums are widely available and have a better evidence base for success and much more pharmaceutical regulation than commercial vapes and e-cigarettes. You can get smoking cessation support from your GP, practice nurse, or specialist stop smoking services in your area.

If you have a loved one who is trying to quit smoking, it is important that they remain active and engaged with activities to keep their mind off the desire of smoking. At Homage, our trained care professionals are able to provide companionship, nursing care, night caregiving, home therapy and more, to keep your loved ones active and engaged. 

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About the Writer
Elaine Francis, R.N.
Elaine Francis is a registered nurse with 17 years’ experience in healthcare. She turned to writing to follow her passion for realistic medical communication. She loves translating medical jargon into accessible language for the people who need to understand it most. When she’s not writing or working on a busy cardiology unit, she spends her time telling her children to hurry up.
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