Vaping health risks

A young person is squatting down smoking a vape. They are wearing purple trousers and a green top and in the background there are wind turbines representing the risks of vaping

Vaping has become more popular recently, with some signs that in the future more people will vape than smoke. Why? Well it doesn’t create smoke, it’s more discreet than normal ciggies, it’s cheaper and it’s less harmful than actual smoking. But what do we really know about vaping? We explore the science behind it – what are vaping health risks? What does vaping do to your lungs? And how addictive is it?

What is vaping?

Let’s start with the basics. Vaping is the use of e-cigarettes, vape pens and other disposable or non-disposable vaping devices to inhale a vapour which gives you a hit of nicotine without you having to inhale smoke. Smoke is known to include lots of nasties that are bad for your health and is the leading cause of preventable death in the UK.

Vapes can be modified to include flavours and other substances such as THC, the active ingredient in cannabis that gets you high (this is currently quite rare in the UK but may become more common in the future).

E-cigarettes etc were initially invented as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes to help people give up smoking. The majority of people who vape are using them to quit or cut down but some people who have never smoked are also now trying e-cigarettes.

What is the legal age to vape?

In England, it is illegal to sell nicotine containing vapes to anyone under the age of 18, or buy a vape to give to someone under 18 (proxy purchase). However, people under 18 commonly report buying products or being given them by others.

There is no legal age limit on vaping or smoking in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland it is an offence to smoke and vape under the age of 18.

Can you get addicted to vaping? 

It’s possible. But most people who vape are already addicted to nicotine through smoking. In general people who vape don’t absorb nicotine into their bodies at the same speed or concentration as when they smoke, therefore vapes are likely to be less addictive than smoking. There are a small group of people in the population who vape but have never smoked but more research is needed to understand what, if any, level of addiction they have.

Being addicted to vaping would feel similar to being addicted to smoking for example:

  • Having strong cravings to vape
  • Feeling anxious, restless or irritable if you’re not able to vape
  • Experiencing physical symptoms like headaches and dizziness when you stop vaping

What does vaping do to your body? 

Vaping is widely considered a less harmful alternative to smoking and the NHS even recommends it if you’re trying to quit smoking. But although the science is still developing, it suggests there could be risks to your health. So, what might these be?

The side effects of vaping

Since vapes haven’t been around for that long data on the site effects of vaping is still fairly new. Long-term vaping over many years could create an increased risk of some lung or heart conditions. It is not known by how much and any risk would likely be a fraction of the risks smokers have.

Quitting smoking has been associated with improvements in mental health and smoking is thought to cause people to develop depression. It is not known whether nicotine contributes to poor mental health, or if it is the other harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke.

Many people who vape report short-term side effects such as a cough or sore throat. To find out more, read this briefing from the experts at Ash.

Are illegal vapes dangerous?

They can be. Illegal vapes are those that don’t meet UK standards and may contain dangerous levels of lead or other toxic substances. This could lead to some unpleasant side effects and health issues. It’s important sure you’re buying a legal vape to protect your health and know what you are putting in your body.

How can you spot illegal vapes?

To take steps to make sure your vape is legal and safe, check that the product meets the following criteria:

  • It contains 20 mg/ml or less of nicotine (equivalent to 2% or less)
  • It carries the health warning ‘This product contains nicotine which is a highly addictive substance.’
  • It has been notified to the MHRA and listed on its website – you can search for MHRA guidance for consumers on e-cigarettes

Reporting illegal vapes

If you discover that a retailer is selling illegal vapes, you should report them to trading standards.

If you feel unwell or notice any unusual affects after using a vape or e-cigarette, you can report this to MHRA using the Yellow Card Scheme.

Should I stop vaping? 

We’re not here to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do. If you are a smoker and you’ve switched to vaping you are definitely exposing your body to far less harmful chemicals. If you’ve never smoked or don’t feel like you have to vape to avoid smoking then you might want to think about stopping. That way you avoid any risk of becoming addicted, any possible health risks and save yourself the cost of buying vapes.

If you’re thinking about quitting vaping, here are some things to help you along the way:

  • If you’re using vaping to stop smoking, don’t stop too soon or reduce your level of nicotine if you think you might go back to smoking.
  • If you’ve never smoked remember, the earlier you stop, the easier it will be. If you’re fairly new to vaping, it’ll be easier to stop now than in the future when you may have become addicted to nicotine
  • Choose a vape with a lower nicotine strength and wean yourself off that way. Although a lower nicotine strength doesn’t necessarily reduce your exposure if you end up vaping more often because you get less nicotine from each puff.
  • Avoid using flavoured vapes and ‘modified’ vapes (aka vapes that have been designed to be more powerful or contain other substances)
  • Talk to your GP or to your local pharmacist who could recommend nicotine replacement therapy
  • Try to reduce your stress levels – things like exercise, healthy eating, doing things that make you happy can all help to reduce stress and ultimately make you feel less like vaping.
  • Resources on quitting smoking can also help you quit vaping; take a look at this NHS guidance, which includes tips on avoiding a relapse

The Mix would like to thank the experts at Ash and Dr Sarah Jackson for their input on this article.

Next Steps

By Olivia Capadose

Updated on 16-Jan-2023

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