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Vaping popularity growing, but study questions health risk

Electronic cigarettes have become a popular product, especially among traditional smokers who are trying to quit their old habit.

The devices and their related equipment remain unregulated despite concerns about the vapors they produce, concerns recently brought to the forefront by a Harvard study indicating many of the e-cigarette flavorings feature the harmful chemical diacetyl.

Yet those in the growing vaping industry say the products they sell are often misunderstood by the general public.

Vaping involves a battery powered e-cigarette, which, instead of burning like a traditional cigarette, takes a substance known as e-juice and heats it just enough to vaporize the liquid and create a sensation similar to smoking a cigarette.

"E-juice is made out of your nicotine, which is the addicting factor in cigarettes, propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin," said Chris Graves, co-manager of Cool Vapors on Ross Clark Circle in Dothan.

Graves said the main difference between vaping and traditional smoking is that the e-cigarette isn't burning anything and doesn't have tar or carcinogens added in like traditional cigarettes.

"It's water and nicotine, basically," he said.

Cool Vapors opened about two years ago, and its growth has been steady.

It didn't take long for people to begin flocking in to try new flavors (there are thousands of vapor flavors that exist on the market).

"One of the main things that a lot of people saw when it first started is that it's cheaper and it's a lot better for you," Graves said. "Usually when we tell people it's healthier for you, they're like, 'Yeah, maybe.' But when they actually try it, 90 percent of the people that come back say they breathe easier, can run a lot easier and taste things a lot more."

In recent years, concerns have arisen, though.

Graves hears and sees the concerns on a regular basis, some of which he feels are misguided.

"One of the main misconceptions is that vaping is anywhere near like cigarettes," he said. "It is considered an electronic cigarette, which I think is a coined term by tobacco companies, but it's a completely different thing entirely. It's meant to get (people) off cigarettes."

Then there's the matter of the Harvard study, published earlier this month, which found diacetyl in 39 of 51 types of flavored e-cigarettes and liquids that were tested.

Diacetyl has been linked to a major respiratory disease known as "popcorn lung."

With no regulations imposed yet, the study raised concerns that vaping could be as dangerous as smoking.

Graves said the study drew his immediate interest.

"Popcorn lung has been (discussed) in the vaping industry for quite some time now," Graves said. "I first heard about it a year or so ago when I started working here and I was very skeptical of it. What the Harvard study was talking about was it was related to popcorn lung. What they didn't tell in most of the study was that cigarettes have 10 times more of the diacetyl, which causes popcorn lung, than actual vaping, and there's no research that correlates smoking to popcorn lung."

Graves doesn't claim vaping is a healthy practice.

In fact, Cool Vapors enforces an age limit that complies with existing tobacco age limit laws.

"I think it's very important (to enforce age limits), but right now since it's such a major thing that's growing very rapidly, the government hasn't really cracked down on an age limit," Graves said. "When we started here, we just took on the age for tobacco in Alabama, 19 years or older. A lot of people will say there's no guidelines, no actual law, but until they actually make a law we'll keep it at the tobacco age."

For adults, in Graves' view, it's a matter of comparing vaping to traditional smoking, which he calls much more dangerous.

"There's no carcinogens, no burning of tobacco," Graves said. "People are concerned it's harmful like cigarettes, but that's not at all the case. It's nowhere near good for you, but I'd say it's 100 times better for you than smoking cigarettes."