vaping young people
(Thorn Yang, Pexel)

Spoilers: Office e-smokers, you’re still being uncool to your co-workers. The World Health Organisation breaks down what we know and what we don’t about vapes.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released a list of seven commonly asked questions about e-cigarettes, like whether or not they’re safer than traditional cigarettes and what they mean for your lungs and those around you. Here’s what the WHO thinks you should know via its latest fact sheet.

1. Are e-cigarettes and other vaping products dangerous? Also known as: Did I really just hear about exploding vapes?

There are different types of e-cigarettes, also known as Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems, with varying amounts of nicotine and harmful emissions.

These emissions typically contain nicotine and other toxic substances that are harmful to both users and those exposed to the vapours secondhand. Some devices that claim to be nicotine-free have, in fact, been found to contain nicotine.

There is no doubt Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems are harmful to a person’s health, the WHO says, but it is too early to provide a clear answer on the long-term impact of using them or being exposed to them.

Vapes and e-cigarettes are particularly risky when used by adolescents, the global health body warns. Nicotine is highly addictive, and young people’s brains develop up to their mid-20s. Exposure to nicotine can have long-lasting, damaging effects.

Hookah young women smoking
Gateway device? The WHO says that people who use electronic nicotine devices may be more likely to transition to cigarettes or hookah pipes later. (Ivandrei Pretorius, Pexel)

Young people who use e-cigarettes are also more likely to use conventional cigarettes, cigars or hookahs, the WHO says.

And e-cigarettes increase the risk of heart disease and lung disorders. For pregnant women, they pose significant risks as they can damage the growing fetus.

Lastly, the liquid inside your favourite vapes can burn you and quickly cause nicotine poisoning if swallowed or absorbed through the skin. There is a risk of the devices leaking, or of children swallowing the liquid, and these electronic devices have been known to cause severe injuries through fires and explosions.

That’s right, we said explosions.

2. Can we blame e-cigarettes for all those mysterious lung injuries?

There is growing evidence to show that Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems could cause lung damage.

On 17 September 2019, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) activated an emergency investigation into links between Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems use and lung injuries and deaths.

By 10 December 2019, the USA reported more than 2 409 hospitalised cases and 52 confirmed deaths.

At least five other countries have initiated investigations to identify cases of lung injuries related to Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems use.

[Editor’s note: In January, the CDC released a statement that said data strongly linked the lung injuries to the presence of Vitamin E acetate and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in vapes. The US body now recommends that people not use THC-containing e-cigarette, or vaping, products, particularly from informal sources like friends, family, or in-person or online dealers.]

3. But are e-cigarettes really more dangerous than regular cigarettes?

This depends on a range of factors, the WHO says, including the amount of nicotine and other toxicants in the heated liquids, but the global health body says it’s clear they pose clear health risks and are by no means safe.

Watch: Smoking versus vaping, which one is worse?

4. Are e-cigarettes addictive?

Yes, says the WHO in its latest fact sheet. Nicotine is highly addictive, and e-cigarettes involve the inhalation of a nicotine-infused aerosol.

5. Are secondhand emissions dangerous?

Yes. The aerosols in e-cigarettes typically contain toxic substances, including glycol, which is used to make antifreeze. Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems pose risks to users and non-users.

6. Should they be banned?

Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems are banned in over 30 countries and more nations are considering bans to protect young people.

Where vapes and e-cigarettes aren’t forbidden, the WHO now recommends e-cigarettes should be regulated and this should aim to:

  1. Disrupt the promotion and uptake of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems products;
  2. Reduce the potential health risks to e-cigarette users and non-users;
  3. Prohibit false or unproven claims from being made about Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems; and
  4. Protect existing tobacco-control efforts.
  5. About 15 000 unique flavours are used in e-cigarettes, including flavours designed to attract young people, like bubble gum and cotton candy.

Governments should also restrict Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems advertising, promotion and sponsorship so young people, other vulnerable groups and non-smokers are not targeted.

The use of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems in indoor public and workplaces should be banned, given the health risks posed to non-users.

Taxing Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems in a similar way to tobacco products offers a win-win for governments by protecting citizens through higher prices that deter consumption.

7. So will e-cigarettes help me quit smoking?

For tobacco users looking to quit, there are other proven, safer and licensed products, such as nicotine replacement therapies (such as patches and gums), as well as quitting hotlines, mobile messaging and specialised tobacco dependence treatments.

This is an edited version of a WHO fact sheet. Read the original here.

[9:16 am 27 January 2020 This edited fact sheet was updated with an editor’s note providing extra information not originally included in the WHO fact sheet regarding the CDC’s findings as to the probably cause of the lung injuries in the United States. Bhekisisa would like to thank @HealthLawAdamH who pointed out the omission.]