Vape tricks could increase health risks, experts warn | Science News for Students

Vape tricks could increase health risks, experts warn

Stunts could expose teens to higher levels of harmful chemicals, scientists worry
Aug 15, 2017 — 7:00 am EST
vape waterfall

Tricks using the vapor clouds from e-cigarettes and other vaping devices are popular among some teens. Researchers now worry these behaviors could boost health risks. Here, a vaper creates a “waterfall.”

Aleksandr Pogudin/iStockphoto

Waterfall. Cheerios. Cloud chasing. These are names for shapes or patterns that people can make when exhaling vapor from an e-cigarette or other vaping device. A new study of teen vapers shows that more than three in every four had tried such tricks. While they might be fun, researchers worry that such stunts could lead to increased health risks for teens.

“The high number of adolescent e-cigarette users that have tried vape tricks tells us it could be an important reason why some teens vape,” says Adam Leventhal. He studies addiction at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He was not part of the new research.

Earlier studies have shown that some teens vape because they think it looks cool. Others want to try the fruit- and candy-flavored e-liquids used to make vape clouds. Vape tricks may be another factor, says Jessica Pepper.

Pepper wants to know what motivates teens to vape. She works for a research institute called RTI International. It’s located in Research Triangle Park, N.C. As a social scientist, she studies how different groups of people behave. Her focus: teen vapers.

Pepper watched online videos of e-cigarette users performing the tricks. Some blew tiny vapor rings (cheerios). Others spewed out big, thick billows of vapor (cloud chasing). “I could see why teens might be interested. Some of the tricks were fascinating,” Pepper admits.

advanced vaporizer
Advanced or modified devices that heat e-liquids to higher temperatures could expose teen vapers to more harmful chemicals.

Her team created an online survey to gauge how common these tricks are among teen vapers. She also wanted to see whether these stunts are more appealing to certain teens.

Some of their survey questions asked about vape tricks and how often teens vaped. Others asked how safe — or harmful — teens thought vaping was. Still more questions focused on what type of vaping devices teens use.

Pepper advertised the survey on Instagram and Facebook. More than 1,700 people took part. All were between the ages of 15 and 17. Each reported vaping at least once in the last month.

More than three in every four of the teens reported having tried vape tricks. Almost as many said they had watched vape tricks online. About 84 percent said they had watched another person do these tricks.

Teens who reported vaping every day were more likely to have tried vape tricks than teens who vaped less frequently. Teens who said vaping was common among their peers or who reported frequently seeing or sharing social media posts on vaping also were more likely to do vape tricks. Teens who said they were concerned about health risks of vaping were less likely to have tried the tricks.

These data were collected from a single point in time. That means the researchers don’t know which interest came first: vaping or being impressed by vape tricks. So the researchers can’t say whether vape tricks encourage nonvapers to pick up the habit. Many scientists and policy makers would like to find out if this might be true.

Health concerns

Pepper and her colleagues also asked the teens about their use of electronic vaporizers. These modifiable devices, or mods, often have refillable tanks and other special features. Teens who used mods were more likely to have tried vape tricks. That’s important, says Leventhal, because mods put out more power than smaller “cigalikes” or vape pens. More power means a bigger, thicker vapor cloud. And that matters because of what’s in it.

vapor lungs
Some vape tricks require users to breathe the vapors deeply into their lungs, then exhale them through the nose, ears or eyes.
Oleksandr Suhak/iStockphoto

The vapor cloud from an e-cigarette is a fog of tiny particles suspended in air. It is also called an aerosol. E-cig aerosols may expose users to potentially harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde (For-MAAL-duh-hyde). This colorless liquid or gas can irritate the skin, eyes or throat. High exposures to formaldehyde can pose a risk of cancer.

Some vape tricks involve breathing aerosols deep into the lungs and then blowing them out of the ears, eyes or nose. That concerns Irfan Rahman. He’s a toxicologist at the University of Rochester in New York. Rahman studies the effects of chemicals in vapor clouds on cells and tissues of the body.

A thin, protective lining coats the inside of the nose, lungs and mouth. It acts like a shield to keep dust and other foreign particles from hurting these tissues, explains Rahman. His research has shown that aerosols from vaping can damage this protective shield.

Small changes over time could lead to inflammation, he says. Inflammation is one way that cells respond to injury. Excessive inflammation can up someone’s risk of certain diseases. “If vape tricks expose these sensitive tissues to more aerosols, we would suspect more harm from these behaviors,” concludes Rahman.

Scientists are still learning about health risks posed by vaping. Plenty of questions remain. But what is clear, they warn, is that vaping is not harmless.

“The aerosols in e-cigarettes can contain harmful chemicals,” says Leventhal. Keep that in mind, he says, “if you are thinking about using e-cigarettes to do vape tricks or you already like to do vape tricks." It would be far better, he advises, to “choose ways to have fun that don’t involve exposing your body to these substances.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

adolescent     Someone in that transitional stage of physical and psychological development that begins at the onset of puberty, typically between the ages of 11 and 13, and ends with adulthood.

aerosol     A group of tiny particles suspended in air or gas. Aerosols can be natural, such as fog or gas from volcanic eruptions, or artificial, such as smoke from burning fossil fuels.

behavior     The way something, often a person or other organism, acts towards others, or conducts itself.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

cigalike     A term for first-generation electronic cigarettes. Many could not be refilled and all resembled the shape of a conventional cigarette. Their power level was also relatively low and not alterable.

cloud     A plume of molecules or particles, such as water droplets, that move under the action of an outside force, such as wind, radiation or water currents. 

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

e-cigarette     (short for electronic cigarette) Battery-powered device that disperses nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale. They were originally developed as a safer alternative to cigarettes that users could use as they tried to slowly break their addiction to the nicotine in tobacco products. People use these devices are known as vapers.

e-liquid     A term for the solutions heated to the evaporation point in an electronic cigarette. These solutions are the basis of the vapors that will be inhaled. The liquid typically contains a solvent into which flavorings and nicotine have been dissolved.

factor     Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.

formaldehyde     A widely used and toxic chemical that manufacturers add to plastics, resins, some fertilizers, dyes, medicines and embalming fluids. It’s even in the treatments used to keep fabrics from wrinkling.

inflammation     The body’s response to cellular injury and obesity; it often involves swelling, redness, heat and pain. It also is an underlying feature responsible for the development and aggravation of many diseases, especially heart disease and diabetes.

online     (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.

particle     A minute amount of something.

peer     (noun) Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features. (verb) To look into something, searching for details.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

social media     Internet-based media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, that allow people to connect with each other (often anonymously) and to share information.

survey     (v.) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.

tissue     Made of cells, any of the distinct types of materials that make up animals, plants or fungi. Cells within a tissue work as a unit to perform a particular function in living organisms. Different organs of the human body, for instance, often are made from many different types of tissues.

toxicologist     A scientist who investigates the potential harm posed by physical agents in the environment. These may include materials to which we may be intentionally exposed, such as chemicals, cigarette smoke and foods, or materials to which we are exposed without choice, such as air and water pollutants. Toxicologists may study the risks such exposures cause, how they produce harm or how they move throughout the environment.

vaping     (v. to vape) A slang term for the use of e-cigarettes because these devices emit vapor, not smoke. People who do this are referred to as vapers.


Journal: J.K. Pepper et al. Risk factors for youth e-cigarette “vape trick” behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health. Published online July 13, 2017. doi. 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.05.010