To this very day, smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States. We can argue all day about a lot of things related to health and wellness—everything from Atkins to Zumba—but this one fact is about as far from controversial as it gets: Smoking cigarettes is basically the worst thing you can possibly do for your health. Here’s the thing, though. We don’t really like hearing that we shouldn’t do something, or that something is bad for us. Instead of taking the often difficult path of eliminating that habit or substance entirely, a lot of us look for a “better” alternative. Enter e-cigarettes and the popular vaping trend. Electronic cigarettes have exploded in popularity over the past few years. The percentage of individuals claiming to have ever used one increased nearly tenfold from 2010 to 2013 (1.8 percent up to 13 percent), while current users went from 0.3 percent to 6.8 percent in that same time frame. Young adults (ages 18-24) are most likely to use e-cigarettes, and although the majority of current users also continue to smoke traditional cigarettes, a solid 32.5 percent do not. All of those statistics to say: A lot of people are vaping, but there is something very, very important to understand about this troublesome trend. E-cigarettes may appear “cleaner,” but tests have shown that their vapor contains known carcinogens and toxins (think formaldehyde and diacetyl, among others), and we have no idea what kind of effect they are going to have long-term. My guess? Not great. Harvard researchers seem to agree with that hunch, with a 2015 press release linking the diacetyl found in many e-cigarettes to an irreversible respiratory disease. (Honestly, though, are you actually surprised that a hobby that involves inhaling artificially flavored smoke is not totally awesome for your lungs?) The respiratory disease in question is called bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung.” It got its colloquial name after workers at a microwave popcorn manufacturing plant developed the disease from exposure to diacetyl-containing artificial butter flavorings. Five of those eight plant employees who originally got bronchiolitis obliterans have since died of respiratory-related diseases. If you think of a lung like a tree, where the branches get smaller as they get closer to the center (trunk), “popcorn lung” affects the very smallest of the lung’s “branches,” thus compromising air movement. Severe cases require lung transplantation, but even milder forms of it can cause coughing and shortness of breath and compromise activities of daily living. The Harvard study was met with fierce opposition by proponents of e-cigarettes, however, who pointed out that the amount of risky diacetyl in e-cigarettes is hundreds of times lower than what’s in actual cigarettes. They expressed concern that such sensationalized headlines lashing out at e-cigarettes would only lead to individuals deciding they might as well go back to smoking traditional cigarettes. Let’s be very clear about this: The only time someone “might as well” go back to lighting up in any context is the literal apocalypse. Here’s the thing, though. Diacetyl and popcorn lung are not likely the end of vapers’ concerns. E-cigarettes are currently unregulated, which is a huge problem. Regulating organizations are not perfect, but when there is absolutely no oversight of a product, manufacturers can do whatever they want. They can literally put anything inside those e-cigarettes, and not only would we not know about it, but it would be perfectly legal. In the end, inhaling any amount of addictive and toxic chemicals is not going to be advisable. You don’t have to be a cardiothoracic surgeon to draw that conclusion. Our lungs have to filter out so much junk on a daily basis (I’m looking at you, pollution), so why not give them a little bit of a break when we can? You’ll save money. You’ll breathe better. And you won’t be cursing yourself 15 years from now if the research goes the way of traditional cigarettes and shows some very, very unsettling health concerns. Is a little bit of flavored smoke really worth that risk?
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