Vaping when expecting: Navigating the risks in uncharted waters

Clearing the air on the unknowns of this activity

We all indulge in bad habits every now and then, sometimes even without considering the repercussions. But when we do stop and think about it, we can also try to switch up these habits by looking for healthier alternatives. Which makes sense, right? But sometimes switching to new methods of satisfying those old habits can come with uncertainties and limited knowledge. What if the new “safer” habits are not actually any better than the old ones? Novelty can come with risk.

A good example of this is the use of e-cigarettes. The popularity of vaping continues to rise, and as more people use them as an alternative to smoking, there is increasing medical concerns about what unknown negative impacts lie ahead.

The negative effects of smoking while pregnant are now well-known. So, expecting mothers who smoke may be inclined to switch to vaping as a presumed ‘healthier’ alternative. However, we are only now beginning to understand the impact of this activity and mothers may be unknowingly putting their children’s health at risk.

Recent research led by Dr. David Aslaner, from Ohio University, has uncovered that the substances inhaled as vapour can reach growing fetuses, leading to developmental impacts.

Using mice as a model system, Aslaner and colleagues found that vapour exposure contains chemicals that can be dangerous to the fetus. It can lead to health problems such as stiffness in the lungs, increased lung inflammation and scarring, and even genetic changes associated with their breathing system.

This research suggests that e-cigarettes and vaping are not the healthier alternative that many people were hoping for. Dr. Matthew Gorr, a co-author on the study, says, “this is important because the recent surge of e-cigs was mostly adopted by young people – who are now reaching the age where they are having children. Many stop smoking when they become pregnant – my mother did, for example – but many may view e-cigs as safer.” As we continue to learn that this is not the case, there is a clear need for more information to be able to provide it to expecting parents.

“The data does suggest, unfortunately, that e-cigs don’t really work to get a woman to stop smoking during/after pregnancy,” says Gorr. “It’s also important for us to understand that the contents of e-cig vapour are not simply an inert nicotine-delivery system but contain other chemicals that may cause harm in the long-term, including harm to those in utero,” he adds.

This raises concerns about how information about e-cigs is distributed to the public and if there are any better ways to communicate the health risks of vaping. However, those working in this research field have experienced challenges. For example, Gorr expressed that he is “constantly pushing back long-held beliefs about health that are not based upon science from some. Unfortunately, a majority-rules or political system has dominated public perceptions of health and science . . . we need to best educate the next generation to seek what is truth through means of the scientific literature and facts, not elsewhere.”

Much like the disinformation campaigns led by the tobacco industry from decades past, people need to have access to health information backed up by scientific facts rather than relying on big corporations and companies promoting the use of vapes. These companies use the negative facts about traditional smoking to leverage their own vaping products as a safer alternative, which is something that could be combatted with unraveling the risks associated with vaping.

Many mothers and individuals who vape may think that this is a safe alternative to traditional methods of smoking. They may be doing this with the belief that they are protecting their children from harm. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and this puts the responsibility on both researchers and medical professionals to ensure individuals who vape know the risks associated with this activity. Only then will the uncertainty surrounding vaping be resolved.

For more information, check out: ‘E-cigarette vapor exposure in utero causes long-term pulmonary effects in offspring’ by Aslaner et al. (2022)

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