For most students, spring means too many hours in the library.

As a graduate nursing student, the Gerstein Science Information Centre is my second home. Last week, just outside of Gerstein, I polled fellow students about their health concerns during this stressful time of year. We discussed many exam-related stresses: lack of sleep, increased consumption of coffee, and other vices.

During one of these discussions, a young man explained — with an e-cigarette in hand —  “I smoke more during times when I’m stressed.” His roommate added, “thank goodness it’s just vapour because we spend a lot of time together these days.” I held my tongue as we continued our light-hearted chat and wished them best of luck with their exams.

Contrary to what has become a popular belief among many U of T students, “just vapour” is not without harm. Although there is a lack of concrete evidence at this time about the exact dangers associated with e-cigarette use and secondhand exposure, there is evidence suggesting potential harm. 

Here’s how it works: e-cigarette vapour is visible and emitted only when the user exhales. What is exhaled in this vapour are the contents of e-liquid.

The e-liquid is often a combination of water, natural or artificial flavouring, nicotine and most often propylene glycol (PG). Known to irritate the upper airway, which includes the nose, mouth, and throat, fine particles of PG and nicotine can end up deep in the lungs, acting as an irritant.

It is obvious that an e-cigarette user is exposed to these chemical irritants, but just as with second-hand smoke from regular cigarettes, even a non-user may be exposed when the vapour is exhaled into the surrounding air. 

It is important to note that there are many factors that may affect a non-user’s exposure to the vapour; for example, temperature and room size can influence the amount of aerosol (vapour) inhaled by a non-user.

Jenna Liao/The Varsity

Jenna Liao/The Varsity

There is also the often over-looked risk of thirdhand exposure from what is left unseen after the visible vapour dissipates. Since nicotine can live on inanimate objects such as curtains, couches, and clothing, it can enter the body through the skin. This may result in prolonged exposure to the carcinogens associated with vaping for anyone living with an e-cigarette user. 

Though the research about the risks relating to e-cigarette use and exposure is in its early stages, I still believe it is also important to communicate that harm is harm. Even though the precise level of risk is not quantifiable, it is clear that vaping is not entirely without risk.

Despite the knowledge that there is some risk involved, there is currently no ban on “vaping” in public. There was a previous policy to ban vaping in certain public spaces, which was to take effect January 1, 2016, but it has been stalled while the Liberals determine new rules that will include medical marijuana.

If some harms have been identified, why wait for this ban?

The ministry of health admits this is an oversight and has committed to addressing this as soon as possible, yet it took us decades to acknowledge and act upon the harms of smoking cigarettes; do we really want history to repeat itself?  For more information and updates on the regulations around smoking and vaping please visit Smoke-Free Ontario.

Free exam tip: for a stress reduction tactic this exam season, instead of reaching for that cigarette (electric or not), I would encourage my fellow students to take a few laps around King’s Circle, since physical activity is well known to help reduce the negative effects of stress.

Good Luck!