With e-cigarette and vaporizer use on the rise, new surgeon general report warns of health risks

  • SubStyle Vapors employee Jacob Erickson, 26, talked about how he feels healthier since switching to vaping three years ago from regular cigarettes while at work in Concord on Friday. “I really just wanted to quit smoking,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier.” ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Jacob Erickson, 26, builds his custom personal vaporizer at SubStyle Vapors in Concord on Friday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Jacob Erickson, 26, builds his custom personal vaporizer at SubStyle Vapors in Concord on Dec. 9, 2016. Erickson switched to vaping from regular cigarettes three years ago for health reasons, and has since gotten into the hobby aspects of vaping. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Saturday, December 10, 2016

Dillon Raboin and Jacob Erickson sat at the counter of SubStyle Vapors on Main Street on Saturday, pulling drags on black vapor pens exhaling thick clouds of sweet, fruity mist.

Hundreds of bottles of vaporizer liquid, also known as “juice,” lined the shelves behind them, ranging in flavors from traditional tobacco to blue raspberry lemonade and Twix bar.

Both in their 20s, Raboin and Erickson said they started to vape a few years ago as a way to stop smoking cigarettes.

Vaporizers and electrionic cigarettes began to grow in popularity a few years ago with people like Raboin and Erickson, who were looking for ways to kick their cigarette habit without going cold turkey.

Vaping products contain addictive nicotine, heavy metals and flavoring chemicals, but they don’t have some of the cancer-causing additives that cigarettes do, including tar, arsenic, butane and formaldehyde.

As the products grow in popularity, national health officials are warning that e-cigarettes and vaporizers are still very addictive for teenagers and young adults. Furthermore, they argue, the health effects of this relatively new product are little-known and could be harmful.

A new report by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy sounded the alarm about the potential dangers of e-cigarettes and vape pens for young people.

“These effects include addiction, priming for use of other addictive substances, reduced impulse control, deficits in attention and cognition and mood disorders,” Murthy’s report stated.

He promised to apply the same sort of public health warnings that exist for conventional tobacco products.

“We know a great deal about what works to effectively prevent tobacco use among young people,” the report stated. “Now we must apply these strategies to e-cigarettes.”

From 2011 to 2015, e-cigarette use has grown a whopping 900 percent among high school students nationwide, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s report.

In 2011, 1.5 percent of high school students nationwide used these products. That number rose to 16 percent by 2015.

As more young people start to use e-cigarettes, use of traditional cigarettes has declined.

About nine percent of high school students reported smoking cigarettes in 2015, a drop from 15.8 percent in 2011.

New Hampshire numbers are also on the rise. Twenty-five percent of high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is administered every two years.

“It’s a high number and it’s a disturbing number,” said Tricia Tilley, chief of the bureau of population health and community services at New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Tilley said 2015 was the first year the survey included a question about e-cigarette products, a reflection of how new they are.

Tilley said one of the biggest worries from a public health standpoint that young people who start out on e-cigarettes and vaping will “graduate” to traditional cigarettes.

“That’s one of the things that’s most concerning, we’ve re-opened that door and that’s a new model,” she said.

At SubStyle Vapors, Erickson and Raboin say they had the opposite experience, using vaping as a way to get off cigarettes.

Both started smoking when they were teenagers. A few years in – blowing through two packs a day or more – they began to notice the health effects of cigarette smoke.

“I felt like utter crud,” Erickson said.

A football player in high school, he couldn’t run without getting winded after smoking cigarettes. Now, “literally, I can do like a 5K.”

Local family physician Dr. Doug Dreffer from Hillsboro-Deering Family Health said he sees adult patients come in who ask if e-cigarettes are safer than their conventional cousins.

His answer? The jury is still out.

“It is not a safe alternative but it is a safer alternative to cigarettes,” Dreffer said. “I think it’s one somewhat of what we know and what we don’t know. The lack of knowledge is concerning.”

What health officials do know for sure is that e-cigarettes contain nicotine and many products also contain heavy metals.

For his part, Raboin said he wouldn’t be opposed to vaping products having to display what is in them. 

“I wouldn’t mind knowing,” he said.

But Erickson added that if vape companies have to start advertising what’s in their products, cigarette manufacturers should have to do the same.

Both men said they are willing to accept the potential health risks of vaping; they believe it’s better than cigarette smoking.

Raboin said he started out using a vaporizer liquid with a high level of nicotine, similar to the amount he was getting from smoking cigarettes. Over time, he has gradually tapered the amount of nicotine down to a much lower level; he said he knows people who have completely weaned themselves off.

Raboin had trouble with vaporizers until he found a flavor he liked: strawberry. When it comes to vape juice, there’s every flavor imaginable, and people can also mix different flavors together to create their own vaping cocktails.

There is a lot that’s still unknown about how the flavorings are made, and what chemicals are in them.

The candy-like vape juice and cute containers worry Tilley and Dreffer, who say they’re concerned that sweet, fruity vapor products are being marketed specifically to teens and young adults.

“That is thought to be a way to entice younger uses,” Tilley said. “We do know they contain chemicals that are not helpful. It’s clear that more research needs to be done in this area.”