NC researchers examine potential dangers of e-cigarettes as adolescent user population grows

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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- At a time where vaping and e-cigarettes are more popular than ever, researchers say users are becoming younger. As usage increases, studies are underway to determine the impacts the vapors have on the human body, but those conducting the research say we’re still half a decade away from substantial conclusions.

"I think I could go without it if I were to start slowing it down, but I don't think I could just stop,” said Greensboro resident Chris Short, who started vaping at age 18. "I've had people that I've known that tried to stop and it kind of made them sick, or withdrawal, or whatever you wanna call it."

As some are attempting to quit vaping, some of the most popular e-cigarettes have increasingly high nicotine content.

"Kids in my son's middle school, my daughter's high school, they vape. A lot of them are strongly addicted to these high-nicotine products,” said Sven-Eric Jordt, Ph.D., assistant professor of anesthesiology, pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University School of Medicine.

Jordt tells FOX8 the nicotine content of e-cigarette JUUL is three times higher than previous e-cigarette models.

"We have some kids that inhale the equivalent of three packs of cigarettes per day of nicotine through these JUUL devices,” he added.

Although e-cigarettes are often marketed as an alternative to tobacco use, Jordt believes using them could lead younger users to tobacco, and other drugs, as they’re introduced to a lifestyle dependent on stimulants. This, as he and his team are striving to gather concrete evidence as to the effects the vapors have on the body.

"We remain concerned that the continuous exposure to the flavors, the inhalation, may have detrimental effects,” Jordt said.

Jordt and his team have found that some of the flavor compounds in the liquids used for the e-cigarettes undergo reactions after mixing, which form a blend found to be “irritating.” He continued to describe an irritant as a “compound that induces burning, makes you cough,” like tobacco smoke, which can cause inflammation leading to chronic inflammatory response.

"However, there's really nothing known about what happens when you inhale these flavors,” he said, adding that levels of irritants in cigarette smoke are significantly higher than in e-cigarettes, but adds that similar irritants are formed in e-cigarettes, just with lower concentrations.

Yet, Jordt says there are also completely different compounds formed with e-cigarettes, which have unknown consequences, stressing the need for long-term studies.

"They would have never smoked before, would have never used nicotine before,” Jordt said, of some teen users, including that it’s often the more affluent who have the resources to buy the e-cigarettes and corresponding liquids.

However, Jordt says he does see benefits for long-term smokers switching to e-cigarettes, continuing to say doctors have seen some acute improvement in the bodies of smokers who switch to e-cigarettes.

"It may buy them a certain years of survival, but may have other effects we still need to study,” he said, adding benefits may only be seen if long-term smokers switch to e-cigarettes for a short period of time, before stopping nicotine use altogether.

Jordt says 80 percent of smokers who switch to e-cigarettes are still using nicotine a year later.

"I was a smoker, quit smoking using vaping,” said Amy Brunk, manager of A&D Vapors in Greensboro. "I tried every other thing, medication, nothing worked."

Brunk says she previously worked at a different vape store, where underage users would often come in hoping to illegally purchase the e-cigarettes and liquid.

"They would just come in hoping that you weren't gonna check their ID,” Brunk said. "They're searching for that buzz from the nicotine."

Jordt’s team is currently studying potential damage to cells caused by the e-cigarette liquids. They have conducted studies with mice, but he says it takes a long time for mice to develop cancer, and since their lifespans are so short, some die before cancer would be able to develop. Still, some have developed emphysema, he says.

"I'd like to quit if I could, but as of right now it's just kind of like, just going with the flow,” Short said.

Jordt says although they’re already seeing warning signs in animal studies, he believes researchers are still five or six years away from determining the effects in the human population.

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