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Vaping’s deceptive allure

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Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/African News Agency (ANA) – Vaping has morphed into a peer pressure mechanism, coercing young individuals into adopting the habit to fit in with a specific group, writes the author.

By Dr Anthony Kaziboni

In a world where trends come and go faster than the swipe of a finger, one trend that has captured the attention of adolescents and young adults worldwide, and in South Africa, is the use of electronic smoking devices (ESDs).

Marketed as a “cool”, stylish alternative to traditional smoking, these devices, including e-cigarettes and vapes, are often accompanied by an enticing vaping liquid that comes in an allure of fruity flavours: apple, banana, berries and grape, only to mention a few. Perhaps this explains why the fluid is conventionally called “vape juice”.

Masked in the vaping clouds lies a truth that needs to be unveiled – a truth that exposes the dire consequences of using ESDs such as vapes, as well as an elaborative deceptive architecture used to justify and defend it.

In this article, I intentionally speak to individuals not already engaged in vaping as an alternative to smoking, especially those new to the habit or those considering it, as opposed to people vaping as a smoking cessation method. My main concern stems from the premise that vaping can be a gateway to traditional cigarette smoking, from nicotine addiction and dependence.

The Peer Pressure Trap

Vaping has morphed into a peer pressure mechanism, coercing young individuals into adopting the habit to fit in with a specific group. A 2020 study titled “A Breath of Knowledge: Overview of Current Adolescent E-cigarette Prevention and Cessation Programs” highlighted that peer pressure significantly drives youth to embrace ESDs. This irony is stark: while striving for social approval, people unknowingly compromise their well-being for a fleeting sense of inclusion.

The influence of social pressures, primarily through rapidly evolving social media platforms like TikTok, cannot be underestimated. Disturbingly, the breach of vaping endorsement regulations on TikTok has exposed a staggering 98% of vaping-promoting videos, putting teenagers at risk. The Unregulated Landscape in South Africa South Africa currently does not have legislation that regulates ESDs. In December 2022, the Parliament introduced the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill.

The Bill proposes several measures to regulate the sale, advertising, and use of tobacco products and ESDs. It is currently being debated, but it is unclear when it will be passed into law.

An absence of ESD manufacturing and distribution regulations allows players in the vape industry to market their products without (accurately) disclosing their ingredients, nicotine levels, or potential health risks.Curiously, I visited a vape store in one of Johannesburg’s suburbs in the West Rand. I requested three different vape juices from the vendor, each with a different nicotine level. Despite being from different manufacturers, all of the juices had a conflicting warning that stated they “may contain nicotine.” However, the products all did contain nicotine.

The absence of regulations could be contributing to the rising popularity of ESDs among the younger population. In a 2021 study by the University of Cape Town’s Division of Pulmonology and its Lung Institute titled “The Nature and Extent of Vaping and Tobacco Use Amongst South African High School Learners” it was found that 15% of high school students surveyed had used vaping devices.

The study concluded that vaping is the most common inhaled substance among high-income grade 12 learners, with over 26% vaping. The prevalence of vaping had increased by over 900% six years prior to the research.

The South African E-Cigarette Survey 2022 revealed that over 10% (11.3%) of urban adults in South Africa had experimented with ESDs, while 4% of adults were identified as regular users of ESDs during the survey period.The Dark Side of Vaping Despite the flashy imagery projected by vaping, the emergence of EVALI (E-cigarette or Vaping Product Use-Associated Lung Injury) in 2019 in the US is a grave reminder that vaping carries severe health consequences. Symptoms of EVALI include chest pain, coughing, fever, and shortness of breath, leading to hospitalisations and even death among young individuals who believed they were making a “healthier” choice.

John Hopkins Medicine indicates that vaping can damage the delicate airways of the lungs, with vapers suffering from “popcorn lung,” also known as bronchiolitis obliterans (BO), vaping-related lipoid pneumonia, primary spontaneous pneumothorax, colloquially referred to as collapsed lung, and potentially increase the risk of lung cancer.

Tackling Misinformation Head-On Research increasingly demonstrates that vaping’s “coolness” comes at a staggering cost. Many local and international companies argue that components like propylene glycol (PG) and vegetable glycerine (VG) in vape juice are safe. PG is a synthetic compound used in various products as a solvent, preservative, and humectant. We consume it in our food – it maintains moisture in prepared foods and preserves their flavour quality for extended periods. VG is a natural compound derived from vegetable oils or fats, which we also consume. Various products use it as an emollient, thickener, and sweetener. It is also used to retain moisture in the skin andmucous membranes.

However, it’s essential to note that the safety of these compounds changes when they are heated and inhaled. The breakdown of PG and VG at high temperatures generates harmful chemicals like carbonyl compounds or aldehydes (examples include formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acrolein); certain heavy metals such as chromium, copper, lead, nickel, silver and zinc and have also been identified in the juice and aerosol of ESDs. Some of these chemicals and metals are cancer-causing. Vaping introduces an array of hazardous chemicals and materials into the lungs, raising significant concerns about long-term health effects.

A Call to Action

The responsibility to counteract the allure of vaping rests on everyone. While regulatory measures are undeniably necessary, the time from conceptualisation to the promulgation is critical. The value of public awareness campaigns cannot be overstated. It’s high time we spotlight the undeniable health hazards, the insidious nature of addiction, and the vaping industry’s manipulative and deceptive tactics.A multipronged approach requires a collaborative effort involving parents, guardians, communities, and schools. By creating an environment where open dialogues about the dangers of vaping are encouraged, we can pave the way for informed decisions.

Furthermore, setting an example is paramount. Adults play a vital role in socialisation – children learn behaviours from the adults in their surroundings. By being exemplary role models, we can communicate the importance of making health-conscious choices. Armed with knowledge, young individuals can stand firm against peer pressure, equipped to make decisions that safeguard their well-being.

Conclusion

The façade of vaping’s “coolness” is a dangerous illusion we must shatter. What may seem stylish and harmless is, in reality, a gateway to dire health consequences. To prioritise health and well-being over fleeting trends is the most prudent choice for adolescents and young individuals. It’s time to break free from the allure of vaping and embrace a genuinely cool future defined by well-informed decisions, self-respect, and a commitment to our vitality.

*Kaziboni is the Head of Research at the Institute for the Future of Knowledge, University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the IFK or UJ.