By ASHLEY MATEO
While cigarettes are generally passé, e-cigs and CBD or THC pens are increasingly popular—and may be even more dangerous.
After decades of anti-smoking campaigns, cigarettes are decidedly passé. Except...they’ve been replaced with more futuristic electronic smoking devices: battery-powered pens that could pass as USBs and hold pods of liquid that contain nicotine, CBD, THC, and other chemicals. In case you’ve been living under a rock, “vaping”—or inhaling the vapor created by these electronic smoking devices—is the new smoking.
Even as traditional cigarette and tobacco use has dropped by 67 percent among adults, according to the American Lung Association, worldwide vaping sales reached $15.7 billion in 2019 and are expected to reach $39 billion by 2030, research published in The Lancet found—that’s a whopping 154-percent increase.
Thanks to effective marketing and the fact that research suggests hardcore smokers can use e-cigarettes containing nicotine to help quit their habit, these electronic smoking devices have a way better reputation than old-school cigarettes. “E-cigarettes were initially created to wean people off of tobacco,” says Nancy E. Amoroso, MD, a specialist in critical care and pulmonary medicine at NYU Langone in New York, NY. “Now, they’ve become so trendy, people who didn’t even smoke are using them—and people will vape anything, not just nicotine.”
But despite their (potentially) well-intentioned start, e-cigarettes of any kind can be disastrous for your lungs—especially as a runner. Here’s what you need to know.
What Happens In Lungs When Vaping
When you take a puff from an electronic smoking device, you’re heating a liquid within a cartridge into an aerosolized mist that you inhale into your lungs, explains Jonathan Parsons, MD, a pulmonologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “That liquid can contain a various amount of ingredients like nicotine and THC, most of which are safe to ingest. But when you heat those ingredients, it is the additives in the cartridges that are the culprits.”
Those chemicals? We’re talking anything from propylene glycol, a common food additive that’s also used to make things like antifreeze and paint solvent; acrolein, a herbicide primarily used to kill weeds; diacetyl, a chemical linked to lung disease; heavy metals including nickel, tin, and lead; benzene, an organic compound (VOC) found in car exhaust; and carcinogens like acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, according to the American Lung Association. (FWIW, the FDA does regulate these products.)
When you inhale, those aerosolized chemicals enter your trachea (or windpipe), which breaks off into smaller and smaller airways, explains Amoroso. “Finally, they enter these tiny air sacs in the lungs called alveoli, which is where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged. Because those chemicals are irritants, they can cause an inflammatory response in the airways and lung tissue,” she says.
Not only will that inflammation cause respiratory symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and wheezing, says Parsons, it also impairs the ability for that gas exchange to occur, which prevents oxygen from getting into your bloodstream efficiently (more on that in a minute).
Vaping something “healthier” like CBD, THC, or even vitamins (yes, that’s a thing) is no better for you. In 2019, following a surge in hospitalizations, investigators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration linked vitamin E acetate, which is used to dilute oils in vaping, to vaping-associated pulmonary injury (or EVALI). “Inhaling vitamin E acetate can cause acute lung injury—a more severe, aggressive form of the inflammation I already mentioned,” says Parsons.
What Does This Have to Do with Running Performance?
You don’t need a scientist or a medical doctor to tell you your lungs are critical to your running performance, but here’s a biology refresher anyway: When you inhale, oxygen goes into those alveoli, explains Amoroso. From there, it’s diffused into the blood vessels, which transport that oxygen to your working muscles. At the same time, your blood vessels bring carbon dioxide from your muscles to the alveoli, where it’s expelled when you breathe out.
“Anything that compromises the lungs’ ability to function at their best decreases the delivery of oxygen, which affects your muscles and your energy level—your muscles will fatigue sooner, and running will feel harder,” she says.
In the case of e-cigarettes with nicotine, you’ll also be messing with your resting heart rate. Nicotine is a stimulant, which causes your heart rate to spike, says Parsons. “Endurance athletes tend to have low resting heart rates, which gives them a large performance window before they hit their max heart rate,” he explains. “If your resting heart rate goes from 40 to 80 because you’re smoking, though, your window to perform is going to be smaller.” Translation: The quicker you’ll fatigue, and the harder exercise will feel.
There’s no arguing with the fact that tobacco is bad for you. But inhaling foreign particles not prescribed by a physician can be harmful can also be bad for you. Think about the long-term effects on people in New York who inhaled dust from the World Trade Center, says Amoroso. “While we may not have all the data to discuss the long-term effects of vaping on the lungs, we do know that inhaling certain foreign particles can increase your risk of developing chronic lung disease,” she says.
“With long-term use, the likelihood is that runners will see some degree of decline in their performance,” adds Parsons. And as an endurance athlete—amateur or not—you likely don’t want to do anything that could compromise your lung function and performance.
If you are a smoker who is looking to quit, the American Lung Association Lung HelpLine is staffed with licensed registered nurses, respiratory therapists, and certified tobacco treatment specialists to help. You can connect by calling 1-800-LUNGUSA, or submitting a question here.
Ashley Mateo is a writer editor and UESCA-certified running coach who has contributed to Runner’s World Bicycling, Women’s Health, Health, Shape, Self and others.