By Dr. Bob Riggs For The Spokesman-Review

Earlier this year, flavored e-cigarette products quietly returned to shelves in stores across Washington, marking the end to a temporary ban on flavored vaping products throughout the state.

The ban, originally mandated by local officials in response to the surging popularity of vaping among teens and young adults, came on the heels of newly recognized health risks associated with vaping.

Despite what the research tells us about the detrimental effects of vaping, the number of students in Washington who reported vaping still rose 20% between 2016 and 2018. One explanation is the persistence of misconceptions about vaping that continues to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

That’s why I want to take a moment to debunk some of the most common myths about vaping to better illuminate the health risks research tells us are true.

Myth: E-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes.

Fact: A common misconception about e-cigarettes is that they pose fewer health risks than traditional tobacco cigarettes. While there is no apples-to-apples way of comparing the two, we now know vaping can cause serious medical issues like acute lung failure, chronic lung disease and even cancer.

The symptoms of vaping-related lung illness resemble symptoms of the flu, including cough, shortness of breath and chest pain. Additionally, the high concentration of nicotine in vaping liquid can also damage brain development in teens.

It is critical that people understand the long-term implications of vaping, as studies show a correlation between vaping, which is bad in itself, and going on to smoke cigarettes.

Myth: The ingredients in e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

Fact: Another erroneous claim is that the ingredients in e-cigarettes are less harmful than those in tobacco products. While e-cigarette aerosol may have fewer toxic chemicals than the approximately 7,000 in regular cigarettes, they contain harmful additives linked to acute lung illness and injury.

When heated, chemicals like nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerin and flavoring compounds can be vaporized and inhaled deep into the lungs. Because there are relatively few safety studies on e-cigarettes – and none examining long-term harms – we don’t fully understand the extent to which these chemicals might damage lung tissue or impact others through secondhand vaping smoke, especially groups like children known to be at risk from secondhand tobacco smoke.

Myth: E-cigarettes can be a tool to help stop smoking.

Fact: When e-cigarettes first became available in the U.S., they were marketed as an alternative to smoking and were touted as a tool that could help stop smoking altogether. I don’t recommend using e-cigarettes as a way to quit traditional cigarettes or as an alternative to smoking because of the risks that I talk about above.

While there have been reports of people who successfully quit smoking using e-cigarettes, there is a possibility nicotine use might increase when a person switches from smoking to vaping.

Overall, too little is known about long-term effects of vaping to recommend it as an alternative to smoking. For proven methods of smoking cessation, talk with your health care provider to explore appropriate options and choose the path forward that works for you.

While we’ll need to wait and see whether flavored (or not flavored) e-cigarette products are permanently banned in Washington, I encourage you to remember the grave health risks you could expose yourself to by using them.

In other words, just because it’s back on the shelf doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.

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