Cape Town - Electronic smoking devices such as e-cigarettes and vaporisers have been blamed for six deaths and 450 cases of lung illness in the US, which has South African vape smokers asking: Should we be worried?
Earlier this week, India became the latest country to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes. The state of New York has already banned flavoured e-cigarettes, and the US government is considering a nationwide ban on all flavours except menthol and tobacco.
But local vapers don’t need to panic as long as they stick to reputable products, according to the Vapour Product Association of SA (VPASA).
“It appears that the products responsible for the current reported illnesses are illicit products containing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis. It was reported that the THC was cut with Vitamin E acetate, which has no place in a vaping product,” said the VPASA’s Kabir Kaleechurn.
E-cigarettes and vaporisers - commonly known as vapes - both work by electronically heating a liquid which is converted to vapour and then inhaled. Vapes work on a liquid tank, while e-cigarettes have a disposable cartridge that is inserted into the device.
Professor Elvis Irusen, Head of Pulmonology at Tygerberg Hospital and Stellenbosch University’s Division of Medicine, agreed that cannabis oil was the culprit for the deaths so far.
“The recent deaths in the US are due to vaping cannabis oil,” he said.
“This is fatty and clogs up the lungs leading to lung failure, needing ICU, and is extremely dangerous as there is no definitive treatment.”
But even if you steer clear of cannabis oil, there are serious long-term health threats from vaping - and dangers, especially to children who have access to them.
“I’m concerned about vaping and e-cigarettes as they have similar toxins and cancer-causing chemicals, so they will have similar effects over time as cigarettes,” Irusen said.
“The nicotine in a single cartridge has been implicated in accidental poisoning in a number of children and is capable of killing a child. They are also attracted to the flavours.”
There have so far been no cases of illness as a result of vaping reported at any public hospitals in the Western Cape, according to provincial Health Department spokesperson Mark van der Heever.
Dr Richard van Zyl-Smit, Head of the Lung Clinical Research Unit at UCT’s Lung Institute, said the levels of vape-related illness may be less locally than in the US because of different usage patterns.
“I don’t think the vapers in South Africa are doing what the USA vapers seems to be doing, by adding a whole lot of extra oils and substances to their normal vaping juice,” he said.
The move to ban flavours could help to make electronic smoking devices less attractive to children and young users, who enjoy the options of popsicle, blueberry cheesecake, fruit cereal and ice cream - just some of the most-popular voted flavours on the market.
But Van Zyl-Smit said there was a potential danger to the flavourings.
“It is important to note that the flavours used are commercial food flavours generally - tested safe to put in the oven, cook and eat, or alternatively to flavour a drink,” he said. “They have not been tested or approved to be heated to over 200 °C and then inhaled.”
The way that these results play out in human lung health has not yet been proven, but there is enough evidence to suggest a potential problem, and caution needs to be applied.
Van Zyl-Smit said if you’re a smoker looking to quit, your best option by far is nothing but fresh air.
“If you are unable and want to use vaping as a way to deal with the nicotine addiction, then vaping is likely to be a safer alternative - but remembering that tobacco kills roughly 50% of smokers, so even if 25%- 45% of vapers died, vaping would be safer.”
He warned vapers not to mix their own liquids or get creative with additives.
“If you are planning on vaping, then stick to commercial liquids and don’t make your own or add anything else.”