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Family Health

Researchers Note Latest Vaping Concern: ‘Hacked’ E-Cigarette Devices

June 27, 2024

Yale experts discuss the health effects of vaping, including the dangers of modifying devices.

[Originally published: Sept. 13, 2018. Updated June 27, 2024.]

Although e-cigarette use among adolescents and teenagers has reportedly declined, concerns remain, including ways that young people modify or “hack” their devices.

A recent study published online in Pediatrics and authored by Yale Department of Psychiatry scientists showed that as many as four out of every 10 teenagers and young adults who vape (a term for using an e-cigarette device) modify the devices, potentially risking lung injury, burns, and allowing for covert use of marijuana.

According to the study, 40.1% of 1,018 adolescents between the ages of 14 and 29 surveyed said they refilled devices not intended to be refilled and 35.8% recharged the battery of vaping pods meant to be thrown out after one use. Others reported mixing nicotine and cannabis liquids in devices designed only for nicotine.

It’s understandable why researchers want to keep on top of what youth are doing with vaping products. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised people to avoid e-cigarettes while federal and state officials investigated an ongoing nationwide outbreak of severe lung injuries associated with the use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products. The condition came to be called “e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury,” or EVALI.

Patients affected by the disease have symptoms ranging from cough, chest pain, and shortness of breath to fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and fever. Since the initial outbreak, federal and state officials have reported thousands of cases and dozens of deaths related to EVALI.

Researchers have also identified vitamin E acetate, a chemical added to some THC-containing vaping products, as the main—but possibly not the only—cause of the illness. The 2019 outbreak of EVALI cases emerged against a backdrop of an ongoing vaping epidemic among youth. According to the CDC, 15% of EVALI patients were less than 18 years old.

“E-cigarette use is never safe for youth, young adults, or pregnant women,” said CDC’s Dana Meaney-Delman, MD, who led the agency’s response to the 2019 outbreak. The CDC further warned against using any vaping products that contain THC; buying devices from “informal sources, including friends and family”; and modifying or adding substances to e-cigarettes. For adults using the devices to quit smoking, the advice is to “weigh all risks and benefits and consider using FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapies.”

One study found that people who use only e-cigarettes increase their risk of developing lung disease by about 30% compared with nonusers. At the same time, the risk of being diagnosed with lung disease—which includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—was highest among adults who smoke cigarettes and vape, according to the researchers, who tracked study participants over three years.

In 2016, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office began the work of awareness when the nation’s doctor, Jerome Adams, MD, issued a warning that vaping among youth has reached epidemic levels.

The numbers were shocking. More than 5 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes, according to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Study (NYTS), up from more than 3.6 million the previous year.

Another study that year found that the rates of youth who say they vaped with nicotine in the past month more than doubled in two years. About 11% of high school seniors reported this habit in 2017, compared to 25%, or one in four seniors, in 2019. Among eighth graders, the numbers jumped from 3.5 to 9%.

More recently, the vaping numbers have dipped. The 2023 NYTS showed that about 2 million middle and high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the last 30 days.

What is vaping?

To understand vaping, it’s best to start on broad terms. To vape is to inhale vapor created from a liquid heated up inside a device. From there, things quickly get complicated. The devices have many names—vape pens, pod mods, tanks, electronic nicotine delivery devices (ENDS), e-hookahs and e-cigarettes.

The liquid they contain also has many monikers—it might be called e-juice, e-liquid, cartridges, pods, or oil. Most vape liquids contain a combination of propylene glycol or glycerol—also called glycerin—as a base, and nicotine, THC, or flavoring chemicals to produce common or outlandish flavors, from mint to “unicorn puke.” The devices rely on batteries to power heating elements made of various materials that aerosolize the liquid.

Problems even before EVALI outbreak

Since e-cigarettes arrived in the U.S. in 2007, they have been investigated by addiction researchers as possible cessation devices for adults trying to quit combustible, or regular, cigarettes. The FDA lists 93 harmful or potentially harmful chemicals found in regular cigarettes, and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) describes cigarettes as having more than 7,000 chemicals in them. Because e-cigarettes contain fewer chemicals the industry has presented them as a healthier alternative to regular cigarettes. But vape liquids can still contain nicotine, a highly addictive drug.

And on one point, Yale health researchers who study the health effects of vaping and e-cigarettes agree: Vape devices have not been proven to help adult smokers quit smoking. Moreover, vaping increases the risk a teen will smoke regular cigarettes later.

“The addiction to nicotine and later conversion to (or dual use with) regular cigarettes are the greatest concerns,” says Roy S. Herbst, MD, Yale Medicine’s chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Center. He points to two heavyweight organizations, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), that have issued statements that vaping could be harmful to youth. (Dr. Herbst chairs the AACR Tobacco & Cancer Subcommittee that led the development of the statement.)

A worrying trend

When potentially risky behaviors experience an uptick in popularity, health researchers are never far behind—gathering data. A Yale study in 2019 found that, among students at three Connecticut public schools, those who used e-cigarettes were more likely to smoke regular cigarettes in the future.

Krishnan-Sarin points to progress that has been made—finally—in recent years to reduce regular cigarette smoking rates among young adults. In her opinion, the significant decline is due to the success of large-scale public health campaigns and a general awareness among youth that cigarettes are harmful to health.

She is concerned that most teens who vape with nicotine don’t know the drug can be damaging to their development. “We have a lot of evidence showing that the adolescent brain is extremely sensitive to the effects of nicotine,” she says, adding that the brain doesn’t stop growing until around age 25. “Studies have shown us that nicotine can interfere with memory and attention processing.”

In his imaging studies of adults who use e-cigarettes, Stephen Baldassarri, MD, an internist at Yale Medicine, has begun to gather information on the factors that influence nicotine delivery from e-cigarettes and whether vaping promotes cessation from conventional cigarette smoking. Teens cannot participate in such studies, but “we all agree that e-cigs are not a good thing for youth and nonsmokers,” Dr. Baldassarri says.

How to talk to your kids

Probably the worst thing a parent could do for their child would be to buy an e-cigarette under the misconception that this might prevent them from smoking regular cigarettes, Krishnan-Sarin says. She encourages parents to talk openly and freely about vaping—with the caveat that they provide accurate information. “I think the problem is that parents lose credibility if they say something to try and convince their child, who then finds out that it isn’t true,” she says.

"Parents should base their information on accurate facts and also encourage their children to read about and understand the science on this issue instead of relying on what their friends and peers tell them."

Dr. Baldassarri suggests explaining the addictive nature of vaping, which would mess with the one thing teens crave the most: independence. “In some ways, when you get addicted to a drug, it’s like losing your freedom of choice,” he says. “The risk of losing that freedom might be a persuasive message for kids.”

Deepa Camenga, MD, a pediatrician who is board-certified in addiction medicine, says it’s never too early to begin talking about e-cigarettes in age-appropriate language. “When you are out and about with your children and see an advertisement, for example, take the opportunity to talk about it,” she says. As they grow older, parents can expand on their thoughts and expectations. “It’s also important to give teens and young adults the space to ask questions,” she says.

Patrick O’Connor, MD, Yale Medicine’s chief of general internal medicine, who has dedicated his career to researching opioid and alcohol drug abuse, points to similarities between epidemic cigarette use in the 1940s and 50s, and e-cigarette use now.

Even as evidence accumulated on the link between lung cancer and cigarette use, doctors didn’t always take time to talk to patients about those risks, he says. “I think it’s a major responsibility of physicians, family medicine doctors, pediatricians, and adolescent medicine practitioners. One of the big deficits in medical education has been to prepare medical students to address these issues with their patients, ask them about their use of these substances, and advise them on the risks,” Dr. O’Connor says. “This is as true for e-cigarette use and vaping as it is for alcohol and other drug use.”

What may be the most important message of all is that e-cigarettes and vaping come with many health unknowns, Dr. O’Connor adds. “You see plumes of what looks like steam coming out of people’s mouths on the street when they are vaping, and I think they assume it’s mostly safe, mostly water. But these liquids used in vaping are filled with all kinds of stuff [like nicotine, marijuana, flavoring agents, chemicals], and we don’t always know what else is in there,” he says.

Surgeon General Adams echoed these concerns in his news conference following the release of his initial advisory: “Studies show that youth, like my son, have no clue what's in these products most of the time.”

Months after the release of that advisory, Yale researchers found that byproducts, called acetals, form when flavoring agents mix with solvents in the liquid. It is not yet known if this has negative effects on the body, but Sven-Eric Jordt, PhD, one of the study’s authors, says he hopes that the FDA will begin to study the short- and long-term effects of inhaled acetals.

But parents shouldn’t wait for government regulations and monitoring to catch up with this disturbing trend, says Richard Martinello, MD, an infectious disease specialist who has treated EVALI patients.

“Kids are smart. They do make good decisions and while it may not seem like it at times, they do listen,” Dr. Martinello says. “It’s critical that they hear from parents and other loved ones about the dangers of vaping. They may not hear this from their friends."