What Are Vapes?
Vapes, or e-cigarettes are battery operated devices that heat a liquid (e-liquid) until it vaporizes into an aerosol. They come in many shapes and sizes from box-like devices with mouth pieces to small flat sticks that look similar to a USB memory stick. E-liquid is sold in bottles so that the user can customize and fill their own device, or in pre-filled cartridges/pods that snap into one end of the vape. There are many slang words associated with vaping including ghosting, cloud chasing, hit, nic juice and heady.
Originally called e-cigarettes, these devices have many different names such as vapes, pens, mods and tanks. Although their look and function may differ slightly, all devices have the same basic components:
- A tank, cartridge/pod or reservoir where e-liquid is stored
- Heating element
The act of Vaping
To vape a person inhales and exhales an aerosol produced by the vaping device. Aerosol is created when e-liquid is heated by the device. The heating element within the vape heats the e-liquid until an aerosol is produced. There is a misconception that this aerosol is just a harmless water vapour, but in fact it is a mixture containing many fine particles. These particles are inhaled through the mouth, down deep into the lungs and then are absorbed into the bloodstream where they get circulated to all parts of the body, including the brain. The remaining aerosol is then exhaled back into the air and appears as a white smoke or cloud.
The liquid in the vape is heated into an aerosol.
The aerosol is inhaled into the lungs and gets absorbed into the bloodstream.
The remaining aerosol is exhaled.
What’s Really In E-liquid?
E-liquid has 4 main ingredients:
Vegetable Glycerin (VG)
Vegetable glycerin is a syrupy liquid with a sweet taste. It is used to sweeten, emulsify or moisten food products and cosmetics. It is also found in pharmaceutical drugs such as suppositories, cough remedies and heart medication. In e-liquid, it acts as a suspension agent for nicotine and flavourings. Although VG is considered safe to eat in small amounts, it has not been proven safe to inhale.
Propylene Glycol (PG)
Propylene glycol is a colourless, odorless liquid that also has a slightly sweet taste. It can be found in industrial products like antifreeze and paints as well as food products where it is used as a preservative, thickener or an emulsifier. Although it also acts as a suspension agent in e-liquid, its main function is to produce the white cloud that mimics cigarette smoke. The user can vary the amount of PG in their e-liquid depending on how much of a cloud they want to produce when they exhale. Like VG, PG is considered safe to ingest in small amounts, but has not been proven safe to inhale.
There are thousands of e-liquid flavours available. Despite fancy ads and labels showing pictures of delicious vanilla cupcakes and juicy pieces of fruit, all vape flavours are chemical based. These chemical flavourings are generally considered safe to eat but as with other ingredients in e-liquids, there has not been enough research done to prove that inhaling them is safe. As an example, diacetyl was once a common chemical flavouring used to mimic the taste of butter on microwave popcorn. It wasn’t until workers in the popcorn factory got sick from breathing in diacetyl that it was found to cause a serious and irreversible lung disease. Major popcorn manufacturers – and some e-liquid manufacturers – have now stopped using diacetyl. But e-liquids continue to contain chemical flavourings that may prove toxic to the lungs.
Nicotine is the highly addictive drug found in cigarettes and is added to e-liquid to keep users coming back for more. But nicotine is harsh on the throat and so vape manufacturers originally had to limit the amount of this addictive ingredient to make vaping enjoyable. Today, vape producers (many of whom are owned by the tobacco industry) have found a way to turn the nicotine into a salt by adding benzoic acid. As a result, it is easily absorbed by the body and allows high concentrations of nicotine to be inhaled without being too harsh on the throat. In Canada, e-liquids and cartridges/pods are available with extremely high levels of nicotine. The nicotine is what gives the brain a rush. Continued nicotine exposure causes changes in the brain that result in a nicotine dependence. Going without nicotine once you are dependent causes withdrawal symptoms that are relieved by inhaling more nicotine – that’s the addiction.
How to Know if Someone is Vaping
A combination of the following may indicate someone is vaping:
- Smelling fruity smells
- Noticing unfamiliar USB drives or battery chargers
- Attempting to conceal a small device up a sleeve
- Blood shot eyes
- Seeing small or large clouds of white aerosol
- Raising a shirt up over the face/mouth