A growing number of teenagers across the United Arab Emirates and wider GCC are being attracted to vaping products as a “fashionable and attractive” alternative to cigarettes, experts have said.
Doctors in the UAE are warning that the flavored options are enticing many adolescents to try the battery-operated e-cigarettes, with many falsely believing vaping is a safe alternative to traditional nicotine products.
However, they warn that vapes – which have cartridges filled with a liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavoring and chemicals - are still harmful products for a user of any age.
Vaping was legalized in the UAE in 2019 and in Saudi Arabia in 2020.
Dr. Abdalkarim Nassar, a specialist pulmonologist at Burjeel Specialty Hospital in Sharjah, told Al Arabiya English that there is no safe way to smoke.
“E-cigarettes produce an aerosol by heating a liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavorings, and other toxic chemicals that are harmful to both users and non-users who are exposed to the aerosols second-hand,” he warned. “Some products claiming to be nicotine-free have been found to contain nicotine.”
“Many pieces of evidence have revealed that these products are harmful to health and are not safe.
“This increases the risk of heart disease and lung disorders. They also pose significant risks to pregnant women who use them, as they can damage the growing fetus.”
Nassar said there is growing evidence that e-cigarette use is also associated with lung injuries.
No smoking is safe
“The use of e-cigarettes is unsafe for kids, teens, and young adults,” he said. “Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine.”
While vaping is often marketed to smokers of cigarettes wanting to quit but unable to kick the habit – proving an alternative to users who wanted a hit of nicotine but without the tar – vaping can become a gateway to other smoking products, said the doctor.
“Nicotine is highly addictive and exposure to nicotine in children and adolescents can have long-lasting, damaging effects on brain development and there is a risk of nicotine addiction to those who otherwise would not have used cigarettes and land up in heavy smoking in the future.”
Nassar said in a recent report, the World Health Organization mentioned the threats posed by new nicotine and tobacco products like e- cigarettes and vaping and found that its use is more among children and adolescence population.
“These products are often marketed to children and adolescents by the tobacco and related industries that manufacture them, using thousands of appealing flavors and misleading claims about the products. People falsely believe that these are either non-nicotine or they help in quitting smoking,” Nassar said.
“Most people who smoke started smoking at their teenage years, especially those who have friends and/or parents who smoke and are more likely to start smoking earlier than those who don’t. Some teenagers begin after they just wanted to give it a try.”
Vaping is marketed as fashionable
The tobacco industry’s advertisements, price breaks, and other promotions for its products are a big influence in society, according to Nassar.
“The false perception by young [people] once thinking smoking is exciting, glamorous, and safe is another reason for them to start smoking. Studies show that young people who see smoking in movies, video games and other multimedia platforms are more likely to start smoking early,” the doctor added.
“The use of e-cigarette and other high-tech fashionable electronic ‘vaping’ devices, coming in different flavors and styles, are influencing more and more young people.”
This is true in the UAE and likely elsewhere in the GCC, he said.
“These products are wrongly seen as harmless and easier to get and use than traditional tobacco products. These devices are a way for new users to learn how to inhale and become addicted to nicotine, which eventually prepares them for future smoking.”
Nassar also said more awareness about the various nicotine products and their harmful effects on health should be given by family members, or at school and in colleges.
Dr. Neema Madhusoodanan Nambiar, a general practitioner at UAE’s Bareen International Hospital in MBZ City, also told Al Arabiya English that there is “no harmless way to smoke.”
“The healthiest option is not to vape or smoke. Don’t vape if you don’t smoke.”
Studies have shown that nicotine replacement therapy – such as e-cigarettes – can help traditional smokers kick the habit.
The difference between smoking and vaping is that smoking delivers nicotine by burning tobacco, which can cause smoking-related illnesses, and vaping can deliver nicotine by heating a liquid in a much less harmful way.
A gateway to tobacco use
However, Nambiar said the concern is that the younger generation – many who have never tried a cigarette – are encouraging to pick up vaping because the products are marketed as much attractive that traditional tobacco products.
“Vaping becomes very appealing for the present generation because to start with its new technologies, a gadget and some of these gadgets are actually very sleek and cool-looking so it’s basically you get conditioned to the gadget,” she said.
On top of this, these devices are delivering nicotine through attractive flavors such as blueberry or raspberry.
“Flavors are a very powerful way to conditioned you to other stimulants, so anything that’s ultimately very basic into the way that we get conditioned to food - through flavors and smells.”
“The appeal of being it cool, and then on top of that it has these very tasty flavors that then become appealing on themselves,” the doctor added.
“Then you put in nicotine, which is going to make everything more reinforcing because nicotine is a drug that activates that dopamine neuron. And dopamine neurons are there in your brain to assign something as salient - as worthwhile, as motivating and then the flavor is good and then you have nicotine, which enhances that it makes it even more salient and that is really a terrible combination for accelerating the addictiveness of a product.”
Study shows vaping harm
Last week Al Arabiya English reported how vaping exposes users to around 2,000 chemicals, including potentially harmful industrial compounds, according to a study of four popular brands by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
Most of the chemicals found were unidentified, but of those that were, six were cause for concern, according to the study published in Chemical Research in Toxicology, a peer-reviewed journal.
Researchers found condensed hydrocarbon-like compounds that are typically associated with traditional combustion products like cigarettes, despite the fact that vaping is often marketed as safer than those products. The study also found caffeine in some, which isn’t disclosed on labels.
E-liquids – a mixture of water, nicotine and other ingredients that are found in vaping products – and aerosols were studied for products sold by Juul Labs, British American Tobacco, ITG Brands and Mi-One Brands. The companies didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.
“People just need to know that they’re inhaling a very complex mixture of chemicals when they vape. And for a lot of these compounds, we have no idea what they actually are,” Carsten Prasse, an assistant professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins and a senior author of the study, said in a statement.