Sidebar: Are Those Nicotine Vapes Actually Better Than Cigarettes?

TLDR: Mostly, yes. (This article is a sidebar on the safety of nicotine vapes to an upcoming article about disposable vape pens as e-waste).

A few years ago, a number of news stories blew up about a surge in mysterious respiratory illnesses that were traced back to vaping, something I was only barely familiar with, had never done, and never spent too much time thinking about. The rowdy youths were at it again, the Boomers cried, doing the drugs, inhaling the weeds! Meanwhile, scientists and doctors studied the phenomenon, and found that the common factor was, most likely, a number of chemicals added to vape products. Thus began what is still an ongoing debate about the health effects of nicotine vapes.

The primary culprits in the investigation were found to be tocopheryl acetate (Vitamin E, but not in a format where it’d be good for you) and diacetyl, a naturally-occurring-but-often-industrially-produced food-y compound well-known to scientists. A number of jurisdictions have banned these following mysterious respiratory illness-gate of 2019-2020, and most manufacturers don’t use them.

Meanwhile, peer-reviewed studies have found that nicotine vape “juice”– specifically, the carrier fluids in which the nicotine is dissolved- can produce aerosolized formaldehyde, acrolein, and some other bad stuff, when heated. Formaldehyde and acrolein aren’t great news. What’s less un-great news, though, is that research seems to show that these are mostly generated in appreciable quantities at higher temperatures. Benzene can also be produced, and we know that benzene is one of those bad news molecules. But this is also produced more at higher temperatures, and studies also point out that the concentrations of a chemical like benzene, measured in the zero to 100 micrograms per cubic meter (!), is still far lower than that in cigarette smoke– which is in the vicinity of 200,000 micrograms per meter.

Smoking at a lower temperature may produce lower amounts of nasties, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. 

The Evil Vanilla-Almond Flavoring, Killing The Kids!

Still, for a one-to-one equivalency to cigarettes by nicotine content for That Anxiolytic And Alkaloid Stimulant High That Kids Crave, vapes seem to be generally far less harmful. Just ask this journalist, who, responsibly covering the news, focused on all of the dangerous chemicals contained in these vapes, like:

Researchers in Australia came up with similar results in a recent examination of 65 vape liquids. Every sample contained at least one potentially harmful chemical, including benzaldehyde, an airway irritant, and trans-cinnamaldehyde, an immunosuppressive agent, New Atlas reports.

David Kindy in Smithsonian Magazine, 2021

Ben’s aldehyde?! I didn’t know Ben had an aldehyde?! What an awful thing!

But in fact, benzaldehyde is just an almondy, vanilla-y flavor that occurs naturally in a number of foods we eat on the reg, including a bunch of stuff in the prunus family (as well as in the seeds of apples– not the prunus family but still rosids). It does have a benzene ring in it, and, we suppose, can chemically break off into benzene, or something that looks like benzene? (I don’t know. Look, I’m not a scientist, people). That wokest of molecules, Trans-cinnamaldehyde, no doubt already reviled by the right wing for the prefix referencing its isomeric configuration, is another fragrance slash flavorant compound. It’s got cinnamon in the damn name!

Of course, this is definitely a thing– these things certainly could combust and break down into bad chemicals. But again– it’s more of an airway irritant to me having to gripe about it that David Kindy made these things look like Agent Orange when they’re, ya know, naturally occurring in foods we eat every day. Compounds occurring in foods we sometimes burn on the stove and still eat. And in very, very small quantities, compounds whether naturally occurring in food or whether added artificially as a sorta-natural flavor compound into food. (Kinda like the rayon of the flavor world). It’s also not a question of what the chemicals are, but whether they’re present in high quantities and/or, as mentioned previously, are being incinerated at the higher voltages.

They’re not present in high quantities.

Oh, and avoid the higher voltages.

Gloriously under-regulated and novel to a diverse market, nicotine vape pens are all the rage. They allow you to get your fix of the alkaloid stimulant without leaving your clothing reeking of a litterbox. Are they actually good for you, though? Well, no, but you knew that already.

What About, Uh, The, You Know. “Non-Tobacco” Vapes?

Ah, yes, those. Of the THC products I’ve encountered in the wild, many are not transparent about their ingredients, similar to their nicotianic counterparts. This had become problematic for some manufacturers, who have since decided to make transparency more of a priority. A 2019 study, for example, found dangerous chemicals in THC vapes. As someone who wasn’t buying THC vapes in 2019 or 2020, I can certainly attest to the fact that the market has seen tectonic shifts even over the past couple of years, especially as Michigan experiences a kind of golden age of cannabis (more on this soon).

But there are a number of question marks, as well as, ya know, rural gas stations that sell ∆10-THC products that are mostly unregulated and, as companies already operating in a regulatory grey area, may well include in their products additives meant to produce colorful clouds of acrid smoke (these being probably related to the diacetyl and/or acetate compounds mentioned above).

There is another interesting element regarding THC vapes that even the most devout potheads I know don’t seem to spend much time thinking about, and that’s the way the THC contained therein is actually manufactured. Much of the research around medical cannabis has focused on the inhalation of cannabis flower, a.k.a. the actual green leafy stuff. This is a plant grown by a combination of natural evolution over millennia and human technical ingenuity. Humans have bred strains that, at least according to their successful marketing efforts, have convinced people that the unique combination of terpenes and cannabinoids are responsible for making you feel “lifted,” say, or “inspired,” or, perhaps, like you want to blast off to the moon in a candy-colored cartoon rocket ship.

“Medicinal Marijuana” vs. “Let’s Get You High Quickly And Cheaply With An Industrially Produced Product

But the reduction of everything to just “distillate,” which is basically a gooey solution of mostly THC, well, kinda seems to miss the point of the purpose of this selective breeding, and definitely misses the point about unique chemical mixtures that provide medicinal benefit. Such seems to be the inevitable endgame of the quest to make the highest-THC concentrate at the lowest price. Given how much I read about the complete collapse of the cannabis market as far as cannabis prices, they seem to have succeeded! Whether there’s medical benefit is now of limited relevance if we’re talking about most distillates. The deals that I see advertised– “12 1g cartridges for $100”- are clearly not interested in the Mind-Clearing And Relaxing Benefits of A Shade-Grown Indica From Humboldt County With A High Content of Myrcene and Cymene And Limonene For Extra Whatever. It’s just a cheap way to get high.

A few studies I’ve looked at also specifically cite that terpenes are added to some THC vapes for flavoring purposes. To the uninitiated, terpenes are volatile compounds that exist in tiny amounts in foods we eat, contributing substantially to spicy, herbal, and aromatic flavors– think about sharp, bright smells like cracked pepper, lemon, or pine tree. The chemicals, the studies complain, can break down into things like benzene. It’s those pesky benzene rings again! Anyway, there’s not really much evidence to suggest that it’s more dangerous to smoke THC vapes containing terpene solely because they contain added terpenes. At the very least, you might get more of whatever thermal degradation byproduct out of frying an egg and cracking some pepper on top.

Okay. What’s Next?

I am one of those radical leftist capitalists who believes the Marxist trope that more market information is better in the aim of facilitating more market competition and a more efficient, happy society. I’m pretty sure that was from Das Kapital, right? (This joke is a reference to a recent article in which I looked at why conservatives are terrified of the idea of voluntary corporate standards to report information publicly to investors). Consistent with that belief, I would love to see even some voluntary labeling standards for products in the vape market.

Consumer Information = Consumer Protection

Manufacturers should provide us with a few things (perhaps in some neat little infographic placard that folds out from a micro-thumbnail-sized tab, or something), and we should be prepared to deal with the pushback that will inevitably come from powerful corporations enjoying a multimillion-dollar market expecting double-digit annualized growth rates for the next decade plus:

  • A list of all ingredients in the mixture. What’s that? Trade secret, you whine? Look, bucko. Industrial espionage has already ensured that everyone knows how to make these things anyway. Your competitive advantage is that you have Better Marketing, Better Taste, or Better Something Else! Concentration of nicotine in the mixture is often included on products sold in the US market. I’m more interested in the other stuff. Is it garden variety food-grade chemicals and flavorants like methyl anthranilate? Or is there literally benzene in the mixture?
  • For THC products, mostly, but this could be applied to most commercially available oils: Indication of the extraction method used to extract the THC. Nicotine is often extracted from tobacco using ethanol (ethyl alcohol, the stuff you drink). THC can be extracted with ethanol, but is often extracted with volatile hydrocarbons like butane (Butane Hash Oil being a common trade name for a highly concentrated THC oil). Steam distillation is also an option, but both this and solvent extraction methods may well break down some of the compounds of the good stuff! The solvent doesn’t remain in the finished product, but the process is still heavily reliant upon hydrocarbons derived from fossil fuels. Ironically, the far superior (though far more expensive) alternative to solvent extraction is to use liquid carbon dioxide to extract the chemical at high pressure but a much lower temperature.

Anyway, these are just some ideas. Given how far we’ve come– from a society in which noxious cigarette smoking was ubiquitous and normalized- I’m not quite as worried about the health effects of vapes as I once was about cigarettes. I certainly don’t think kids should be buying these products. And I also think that we should have way more information about what we’re putting in our bodies– and that companies should be required to tell us what these things are.

In the meantime, let’s get back to work on this battery thing, people! Oh, and perfluoralkyl and polyfluoralkyl substances. And PM2.5 emissions. And– you get the idea.

This article on nicotine vape safety accompanies an upcoming article on the e-waste potential of disposable vape products.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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