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Vape flavoring creates new potentially harmful chemicals, research shows

Photo Illustration. Although traditional cigarette use has fallen in the past decade among young people in North Carolina, the rise in popularity of e-cigarettes has presented a new challenge for health officials. 

Photo Illustration. Although traditional cigarette use has fallen in the past decade among young people in North Carolina, the rise in popularity of e-cigarettes has presented a new challenge for health officials. 

E-cigarette users, or vapers, may have even more chemicals entering their bodies than previously feared, according to research by Duke and Yale scientists.

Chemicals commonly used in popular flavors such as vanilla, cinnamon and cherry were studied.

The researchers concluded that chemicals that give flavor to e-cigarette liquids react with the liquid’s base to form new compounds. This reaction takes place at the factory level during the mixing stage.

The existence of these new compounds is undeclared by the e-liquid manufacturers, and the health effects are poorly understood. The new compounds are stable for several hours in a water-based solution, and up to 80 percent of the compounds survive the transition into vapor.

This suggests that the new compounds, in fact, reach the lungs when inhaled.  

Sven Jordt, one of the paper’s authors, said he hopes these findings will spur the U.S. Food and Drug Administration into writing new policies for the e-cigarette industry — which is less regulated than its combustible counterpart. 

Jordt said he was surprised by the speed and propensity of the chemical reaction. 

“What we observed is right after mixing of the components the flavor chemicals are being modified,” Jordt said. “That happens just within a few hours.”

Ilona Jaspers, the director of UNC’s toxicology curriculum, said manufacturers currently don't have to disclose the chemical ingredients of any e-cigarette product that was on the market before 2016, let alone the byproducts of the mixing stage.

“We don’t know what actually the manufacturers put in there, that is problem number one,” Jaspers said. “Now we have to understand that (the chemicals) do not exist in isolation and may form secondary or tertiary products.”

Jaspers was happy to see that Jordt and his fellow researchers proved the existence of the new byproducts, which until now had only been suspected to form. She said the findings will change how she and fellow researchers conduct future investigations into the health effects of e-cigarettes.

Jaspers, however, is not hopeful. She said the paper probably won't have much impact on deterring the curiosity of a 15-year-old student to try an e-cigarette and become addicted to nicotine.

Jaspers and Jordt agreed e-cigarette usage among the country’s youth has reached epidemic proportions. 

According to a report by Truth Initiative, about 22 percent of North Carolina's high schoolers in 2017 used an e-cigarette within 30 days, compared with 13 percent nationally.

Matt Schaefer, a UNC junior studying business administration, began smoking Juul e-cigarettes in high school. He said he continues to vape, though he expressed concern about the long-term health consequences. 

"I don't know the science behind it, and I know they are better than cigarettes, but having any type of substance entering your lungs often can't be good," he wrote in an email to The Daily Tar Heel. 

E-cigarettes were initially slated for stricter regulation beginning in 2018. However, the FDA delayed the implementation of these policies because transitioning to e-cigarettes serves as a legitimate step for smokers who are trying to kick the habit, said FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a statement. 

Jordt admits that while turning to vaping may benefit smokers who exhausted all other methods of quitting, he warns new e-cigarettes increased the delivery of nicotine to such an extent that they now may be as harmful as combustible cigarettes.

Jaspers was averse altogether to the notion that e-cigarettes could be considered a healthy alternative to other tobacco products. Because vaping is a newer phenomenon, there are no studies systematically measuring its long-term consequences, she said. 

“First of all, we don’t know — they’ve only been on the market for a few years,” Jaspers said. “We know what cigarettes do.”

The Daily Tar Heel reached out to Juul for comment, but the company didn't respond.

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