You’ve probably noticed vape shops that have sprung up on street corners and in strip malls, selling an alternative to traditional cigarettes: nicotine vaporizers, electronic cigarettes, vape pens and the flavored liquid that goes inside.

Rather than smoking cigarettes, many are using e-cigarettes, often called “vaping.” It’s marketed as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes.

But is smoking an e-cigarette actually safer?

“While vaping seems like it’s safer because you’re inhaling flavored nicotine, which can taste and smell good, the truth is we don’t yet know what the effects are on your body,” said Rahul Dilip Bharucha, M.D., a family medicine physician at Geisinger Family Practice in Hazleton.

E-cigarettes and vape pens come in many shapes and sizes, but they typically are built the same way: a rechargeable lithium-ion battery heats a coil that warms flavored nicotine liquid into a mist, which is inhaled. 

Many people who smoke turn to e-cigarettes as a way to wean themselves off regular cigarettes and regulate the amount of nicotine they’re inhaling. The nicotine-laced liquid, sometimes called “juice,” comes in a multitude of flavors and nicotine levels.

However, rather than help smokers slowly reduce the amount of nicotine they’re inhaling over time, using e-cigarettes can actually draw out the process so they remain addicted longer than if they had opted to quit smoking.

For non-smokers, vaping can become highly-addictive just like cigarettes and other forms of tobacco.

“People who don’t smoke but begin vaping because it tastes good could become addicted to the nicotine and start supplementing with chewing tobacco or traditional cigarettes,” said Dr. Bharucha.

This trend is catching on with teenagers. Between 2011 and 2015, e-cigarette use in high school students increased from 1.5 percent to 16 percent, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Until recently, there were no laws restricting the sale of e-cigarettes, vaporizers or liquid nicotine to minors.

In addition to the addictive qualities of nicotine, doctors and researchers aren’t sure of the effects of heating the liquid flavoring that is part of the e-cigarette juice.

The liquid used in e-cigarettes is typically made from glycerin, propylene glycol, nicotine and flavoring agents. When it’s heated, carcinogenic carbynols including formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are produced in some cases.

“The problem is that e-cigarette liquids vary widely and are not regulated, so there’s no way of knowing exactly what’s in the vapor you’re inhaling,” said Dr. Bharucha.

In addition to the potential of inhaling cancer-causing carbynols, propylene glycol can also affect your airways.

The FDA recently released final rules that outline how e-cigarettes and other electronic nicotine delivery devices can be manufactured and marketed. Under the new rules, manufacturers of e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine will have to display warnings and submit ingredient lists for approval. The new rules also prohibit people under the age of 18 from buying e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine.

“Obviously nicotine is an addictive substance, but other than that, we don’t know and haven’t completed enough research to understand exactly how e-cigarettes and vaping effects your body,” said Dr. Bharucha. “It’s not a safe habit to pick up, and if you’re considering vaping as a stepping stone to quit smoking, there are a number of safer alternatives.”