'We won the game. 4-0,’ says Rachelle Anna*, plopping down a chair and pulling out what looks like a miniature pen from her duffel bag. She takes a long swig from one end and puffs out thick, white smoke that faintly smells like candy.

We’re in Dubai’s Satwa where Rachelle says she bought her e-cigarette for Dh180. A separate "juice" or flavoured e-liquid that is needed to power up the device, cost her another Dh70. Electronic smoking devices sell like hotcakes here, she says, adding, ‘In my former apartment, everyone owned one.’

The retired professional footballer was winding down for the evening after finishing a friendly in one of the football spots in Dubai. She says one or two puffs of e-cigarette a day helps her relax.

‘I used to smoke cigarettes a lot and could go through a pack a day, whereas my ciggie lasts me about a month,’ she says, referring to the street slang for e-cigarettes.

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Electronic cigarettes are handheld devices that simulate the experience of smoking a cigarette. Users inhale vapour from flavoured e-liquid. There are many types of such devices which are usually disposable, including e-cigarettes and the slightly bigger vape pens and vape mods. All e-cigarettes use an atomiser to heat and vaporise e-juice, whether with or without nicotine and without nicotine.

There are two types of e-cigarettes: open and closed system. In an open system, the liquid that is vapourised can be refilled manually. The mouthpiece is also removable. In a closed system, the e-cigarettes use ready-made refills that screw directly onto the battery.

Why do people vape?

Vape users are in it for various reasons. Some want to cut back on their nicotine addiction. Others are in it for the flavour. Some are just looking for value for money.

A survey by Ernst & Young showed that the most common reason for vaping was that the smoking devices are ‘less harmful than regular cigarettes’. About 49 per cent of regular users said they used vape to curb their smoking habit.

The global vapour products market is now estimated to be worth $22.6 billion, up from $4.2 billion just five years ago
Getty

The popularity of vapes or e-cigarettes has surged in the past few years, not just in the UAE but around the world. In fact, ‘vape’ actually became word of the year in 2014. The device reportedly originated in China in 2003 and has since made its way to the emirates.

But is vaping less harmful than smoking?

‘Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine and some that claim to be nicotine-free have also been found to contain nicotine,’ Dr Sree Kumar Sreedhaharan, Internal medicine specialist, Aster Clinic, told Gulf News recently. ‘The bottom line is, the use of any tobacco product, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe for young people. The American Cancer Society and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warn that no youth should use nicotine products,’ he added.

Another article, also in the Gulf News last month, mentioned how western media reported that the Food and Drug Administration in the US is reviewing reports of seizures among e-cigarettes users, mainly in young people, to explore the possibility of a definitive link.

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Dr Elie Abdallah, Consultant Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine at Mediclinic Welcare Hospital, in fact said e-cigarettes need more stringent regulations than regular cigarettes.

They are not the only experts who are sounding a note of warning about e-cigarettes. ‘Vaping is a new concept in the market and is being promoted as harmless. However, we have to bear in mind that vaping is a relatively recent concept of smoking and we have to wait and see what its long term effects are,’ Dr Suresh Puri, consultant pulmonologist at JTS Medical Centre, cautions.

The doctor says most vapers are ‘conventional smokers who use vaping as a tool to quit smoking’, but the fact that vape contains nicotine ‘is already a cause of concern’.

What’s in the juice?

‘E-liquid contains glycerol or propylene glycol and also different types of flavours. Vaping aerosol also contains harmful chemicals such as acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acetone, acrolien among others though in a less quantity compared to conventional cigarettes. The amount of nicotine and other harmful chemicals inhaled will depend on the vaping device, contents of the e-liquid, battery voltage, and behaviour of the smoker,’ Dr Puri says.

The common complications of vaping include inflammatory effects on the lungs, causing coughing, wheezing and breathlessness, he says.

‘In my practice, I have had experience of treating patients who have been vaping, presenting with difficulty in breathing, and coughing and wheezing. They were advised to stop vaping and given medication to reduce the inflammation of the airways.’

His advice to vape users? ‘Vapers should be conscious of the addictive effect of nicotine and effects of exposure to harmful chemicals in the aerosol even though in small quantity.’

Multibillion-dollar market

Vaping is a thriving industry fueled by users who think it is a safer alternative to conventional smoking. In fact, the industry was started to give adults an alternative to cigarettes and to break them from nicotine addiction.

The global vapour products market is now estimated to be worth $22.6 billion, up from $4.2 billion just five years ago. The World Health Organization reports that there is a rapid increase in the number of vapers, from about seven million in 2011 to 35 million in 2016. Market research group Euromonitor also estimates that the number of adults who vape will reach almost 55 million by 2021.

In one shop at Ajman’s China Mall alone, a salesman tells Friday that vapes are one of his bestsellers. ‘I sell about 500 vapes per day,’ Usman says, adding that some vape users often buy devices in bulk. His usual customers? Asians and Arabs.

At a glass counter in one corner, he shows the different products on sale. The cheapest is a disposable vape that costs Dh60. "Good for three days,’ he says. A more expensive one that can be recharged with a USB costs Dh100.

In February, the UAE made it legal for shops to sell e-cigarettes and other vaping devices, although just last month authorities put regulations in place to control public smoking. The Dubai Municipality last month announced that the use of vape or e-cigarettes will be subject to the same law for cigarettes, which means that vaping is prohibited in public places and violators will face fines ranging from Dh1,000 to Dh2,000.

E-smoking a cause of concern

Loncie, a Dubai resident, says vaping has helped him cut down on smoking cigarettes. He uses the device for about five minutes every day. ‘I find it to be less addictive, plus the smell doesn’t linger,’ he says. ‘The only thing with using vape is you need to drink water afterwards or else your throat will feel dry the next day.’

Biovape

Amid specialists’ warning of vaping creating a new generation of addicted youth, a US-based manufacturer recently announced that it is bringing a nicotine-free device called BioVape in the UAE. The manufacturer claims the device is ‘free of nicotine, caffeine, tobacco, calories, chemicals and toxins’.

But is it a healthy alternative to smoking?

Jericho Badocdoc, an Allied Health practitioner based in Abu Dhabi, said he ‘doesn’t buy the idea of vaping as a safer alternative to cigarettes’.

‘There are no long term researches about the effects on the smoker and the passive smoker,’ he says. ‘But there is research showing that the negative effects of smoking can only be reversed five years after you have kicked the habit.’

He advises people who want to quit smoking to give up the vice, ‘but quit gradually to minimise withdrawal symptoms.

‘Do not smoke at all, if you can. Stay busy so you can avoid the urge to smoke. It is best to quit smoking because it really doesn’t add value to your lifestyle.’

*Name changed

Health concerns associated with vaping

• The World Health Organization has cautioned on the following issues related to vaping:

• Unknown long-term effects

• Addictive nicotine in the vapourised e-liquid

• Possible nicotine poisoning from mishandling liquid in refillable e-cigarettes

• Potential inflammation of the airways due to irritants in some sweeter flavours of e-cigarettes