Health

Here's What You Need to Know About the Risks of Vaping

N.S. just banned flavoured e-cigarettes, while cannabis vape products will be on sale across Canada this month. What's up with that?

A young woman exhales smoke holding a vape pen, looking at the camera.

The risks of vaping still aren’t clear. (Photo: Getty)

Vaping related illnesses have become a major headline grabber in Canada this fall, and for good reason. A recent study conducted by the University of Waterloo states that nearly one third of high school students in Alberta and Quebec tried vaping in the month of November alone. And as the trend grows, particularly among young people, so do myriad new health concerns about the negative effects of vaping.

As the trend explodes, Nova Scotia is set to become the first province to make it illegal to sell any kind of flavoured e-cigarettes and juices, in an effort to deter the number of young people who are vaping. And even though cannabis vaping products are set to hit Canadian stores this month, other provinces are already planning to ban them.

While many people look to vaping and e-cigarettes as safer alternatives to smoking, that’s not necessarily the case.

What are the risks of vaping?

This fall, researchers from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles announced evidence that suggests e-cigarettes are worse for the heart than plain old cigarettes. “The study looked at blood flow to the heart,” says New York-based cardiologist Dr. Brian Lima, the director of heart transplantation surgery at Northwell Health and an associate professor at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. Dr. Lima was not part of the study, but he has been following vape-related illnesses very closely for some time. “And they compared it among a couple different groups: healthy volunteers, regular smokers and those who use vaping pens. In the group that was vaping, they saw a definite uptick in how much less blood flow there was to the heart.”

And while a lot of concern is related specifically to e-cigarettes, cannabis vaping products are also taking a lot of heat when it comes to the rise in vape-related illnesses. And Dr. Lima points out that one cartridge of oil from a nicotine vaping device is the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes, and people are puffing through them really quickly—a regular user might get through a vape pen cartridge in a couple of days thanks to their discreet nature. He also notes that the first lung transplant was just completed on someone with marijuana-vape-induced illness.

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Two new cases of vaping-related illnesses were reported in Ontario last month and, days later, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a report on the diagnosis of “popcorn lung” in a 17-year-old from London, Ont. (Popcorn lung is in reference to a lung disease caused by the chemical diacetyl, which was found in the lungs of sick factory workers who were spreading flavouring in microwave popcorn bags in the early 2000s.) The teen almost needed a double lung transplant and was placed on life support. He admitted to vaping for five months prior to being admitted to hospital.

Aside from diacetyl, the Center for Disease Control in the U.S. and Health Canada also warn of vape devices that contain vitamin E acetate, which can be harmful to the respiratory system. And many are concerned with the flavour additives in e-cigarettes and other vape pens. “[F]or both categories of vaping products, ingredients like vitamins (including vitamin E acetate), minerals, caffeine and colouring agents are prohibited,” says Maryse Durette, senior media relations advisor at Health Canada.

So far, nearly 50 people have died from vape-related illnesses in the U.S. alone, and close to 2,300 cases have been confirmed. Here in Canada, 11 cases are currently being investigated by provincial and municipal governments.

“In February 2019, Health Canada launched a national public education campaign to inform youth of the risks of vaping,” says Durette. “The campaign also equips parents, teachers and other trusted adults with tools and resources to support conversations and discussions with youth about the health risks of vaping products.”

The department has also enacted strict rules on the advertising and marketing of vape products, and it maintains a firm stance on the issue. “Health Canada’s advice to Canadians on vaping remains the same: If you do not vape, do not start. Non-smokers, people who are pregnant and youth should not vape,” added Durette. Dr. Lima echoed these sentiments.

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What about cannabis vaping?

Even in light of these reports, cannabis vape pens were legal as of October 18, 2019 and will be popping up at retailers within the next month or so thanks to an amendment to the Cannabis Act.

Brands that want to see their products in consumers’ hands are leaning on regulations to help get across a message that their products are safe. “As a company that was built on safety and trust, we take this conversation and the concern around the vaping issue very, very seriously,” says Anne-Marie Dacyshyn, chief marketing officer at Dosist, a California-based cannabis company that’s staking their brand on a proprietary vaping technology that allows consumers to take pulls off a pen in regulated doses. “It’s really important that Canadians understand that not all vaporizer products are created equal.”

Dacyshyn notes that the process to have legal vape pens in the Canadian market is quite rigorous. And Simon Grigenas, CEO of BRNT, a cannabis accessories brand that will be launching vape pen products in early 2020 through a partnership with Valens, agrees. Both mention multi-layered testing at third-party laboratories and at multiple levels of government. The hardware and the oil in legal vape pens will be tested several times at the federal and provincial levels before the product can ever land in stores. So both recommend only purchasing legal vape pens in the future.

As does Dr. John Granton, head of respirology at the University Health Network in Toronto. “Our recommendation always is not to vape,” he says. “There are no health benefits that we’ve identified, and a lot of health concerns, and it’s highly addictive. Particularly, when there’s nicotine.” But he says that if you are going to vape to make sure of one thing: “You should only buy vaping products from a recognized retailer. Not online, not from a friend, not from anywhere else but a recognized retailer. You shouldn’t add things to it. You should not add flavour.”

Dacyshyn goes further to recommend trying brands that have a closed-loop system, similar to Dosist (meaning they don’t use cartridges, and the pens are not reusable once the oil is finished), because their products are less likely to be tampered with by unregulated sellers. Grigenas also recommends following brands closely to see how transparent they are when it comes to how these products are made. In fact, Dosist will post information about each batch on its website so consumers can look up their pen by number and see all the details of those tests.

“Consumers want to make very conscious choices, and there are products like ours that have been created from a safety- and medical-forward and science-forward platform for all of those reasons,” says Dacyshyn.

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What about vaping taxes and bans?

Currently, some Canadian provinces (such as B.C. and PEI) are planning an extra tax to vaporizer products or raising the minimum age to purchase to at least 21. In Quebec, the government is calling for an outright ban for at least the first quarter of 2020 due to the uncertainty behind what is causing these respiratory and heart illnesses.

But Dacyshyn believes that adding extra taxes or banning vaping products could lead to people buying from the unregulated market. “They’re not buying the product that’s gone through the safety standards and testing,” says Dacyshyn. “So it’s dangerous to make price a barrier.” Grigenas agrees: “Unfortunately, that taxation is being passed onto the consumer,” he says. “It’s not being implemented throughout the course of the value chain, where it’s being split by the province, the retailer, the manufacturer, the brand. It’s really being passed on almost fully to that consumer.”

These concerns were echoed in a recent article in The Atlantic, which stated, “The most radical solution could also be the most responsible and careful. If you ban it, you can’t regulate it. At least metaphorically speaking, the juice cannot be put back into the cartridge.”

So, back to the question: to vape or not to vape? Until more is known about what is truly causing this latest health crisis, it’s best to refrain from vaping if you can. Cannabis edibles may be a safer way to go. However, if you are still interested in vaping, the legal market should be your first stop.

“We really don’t know the full spectrum of the early and late health effects on people,” Dr. Granton says. “So, we’re still doing a lot of research in that area, and the jury’s out right now as to how safe these products are.”

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