Vaping might be better for you than smoking, but e-cigarettes like Juul come with risks of their own

woman vaping vape e-cigShutterstock

  • Research suggests that vaping - or using e-cigarettes like the Juul - is likely better for you than smoking.
  • Smoking involves inhaling burned material. Vaping involves inhaling heated vapor.
  • Still, e-cigs come with health risks of their own. They are especially dangerous for young people, experts say.
  • E-cigs contain nicotine, an addictive drug that in kids and teens appears to blunt emotional control as well as decision-making and impulse-regulation skills.
  • A single Juul pod delivers the same nicotine to the body as a pack of regular cigarettes. The company has faced scrutiny over claims that it aggressively marketed its sweet-flavored e-cigs to teens.

Smoking kills. No other habit has been so strongly tied to death.

Not surprisingly, vaping - or using e-cigarettes like the Juul - appears to be better for you than inhaling a toxic mix of burned tobacco, tar, and metals. That may be promising news for adult smokers who are struggling to quit with existing tools like nicotine gums, but experts say further research is needed before they recommend e-cigs.

Altria, the tobacco company behind Marlboro cigarettes, is a big investor in Juul. It agreed to pay $12.8 billion for a 35% stake in the vaping company. It's betting that adults who smoke cigarettes will increasingly decide to vape instead, reducing the damage they're doing to their bodies.

But e-cigarettes like the Juul are not without health risks of their own.

Because they contain nicotine, e-cigarettes are especially dangerous for kids and teens whose brains are still developing, experts say. In young people, nicotine appears to blunt emotional control as well as decision-making and impulse-regulation skills. That likely helped prompt a warning on e-cigs from the US Surgeon General in December. And given that it's still early days for vaping, researchers say there's a lot we still don't know about the practice and how it could affect your body.

There's also worry over how the wider landscape of e-cig devices may affect people's overall health. Besides all-in-one style e-cigarettes like the Juul, other "tank-style" devices exist which allow users to tweak everything from the temperature of the device to the amount of nicotine they are inhaling.

Some e-cigs like these appear to contain toxic metals, and using them has been tied to an increased risk of a heart attacks.

Here's what you should know about the health risks of vaping - both for young people and for adults.

Juul, nicotine, and teens

juulSarah Johnson/Flickr

Among available e-cigarettes, Juul's devices offer a uniquely high dose of nicotine: one Juul "pod" delivers roughly the same nicotine content to the body as a pack of regular cigarettes. While Juul maintains that the high nicotine content is key to its success among adult smokers who want to switch, public health experts have said it poses a danger to teens.

Those experts have also expressed concern over a Juul launch campaign that they say involved marketing the devices to young people by way of social media and promotional events. In addition, the company once sold its products in a range of sweet flavors including "cool cucumber" and "creme brulee," options that researchers say helped cement the products' seemingly viral popularity among youth.

Juul maintains that its products are intended only for adult smokers who are looking to quit.

In response to a growing backlash from public health researchers and federal regulators, the company has taken several moves that it says are aimed at keeping its products out of the hands of youth.

For example, Juul removed the word "cool" from its cucumber flavor, nixed the creme brulee flavor, and recently pulled mango and fruit options from retail stores. Juul has also scrubbed much of its social media presence.

In addition, the company has begun to do research on its devices, which have been on the market since 2015. Juul Labs officially spun out of parent company Pax in 2017. On Monday, Juul published a study on its devices that was reviewed by outside experts. Although that research comes with important caveats, it's an early look into the potential for the devices to help adult smokers quit.

Read more: A Juul-sponsored study suggests its e-cigarettes could help adult smokers cut back, but some researchers aren't convinced

Juul has other research in the works as well: according to ClinicalTrials.gov, the government's database for clinical studies, Juul recently completed at least five other clinical trials and is in the process of conducting at least three more.

Other e-cigs, toxic metals, and heart attack risk

marijuana vaporizer vaping vapePeople use electronic vaporizers with cannabidiol (CBD)-rich hemp oil while attending the International Cannabis Association Convention in New York, October 12, 2014.Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Besides the Juul, dozens of other e-cigarette options are currently available in stores. These devices may pose health risks that range from a heightened exposure to toxic metals to even an increased risk of a heart attack.

Last spring, researchers took a look at the vapors that users inhale from several popular non-Juul e-cigarette brands and came away with some potentially troubling results.

For example, they found evidence of some of the same toxic metals (such as lead) that are normally found in conventional cigarettes. They also found evidence that at least some of those toxins were making their way through vapers' bodies, as evidenced by urine tests.

In another study, scientists concluded that there was substantial evidence tying daily e-cig use to an increased risk of heart attack.

That research suggested that people who vape every day may face twice the risk of a heart attack compared with people who neither vape nor smoke at all. The study also suggested that daily conventional cigarette smokers face three times the risk of a heart attack, while people who both vape and smoke (so-called "dual users") face nearly five times the risk.

These findings may have been part of what prompted US Surgeon General Jerome Adams to release a unique warning last December about e-cigarettes.

Read more: The US surgeon general just issued a rare advisory about e-cigs like the Juul - here's why vaping is dangerous

In that rare public advisory, Surgeon General Adams discussed these concerns and reiterated the point that young people should never use e-cigs.

"We need to protect our kids from all tobacco products, including all shapes and sizes of e-cigarettes," Adams said.
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