You’ve heard it a million times: Smoking kills. Thankfully, we’re at a point where not that many young people smoke traditional cigarettes anymore—16 percent of Canadians aged 20 to 24 smoke cigarettes, according to Statistics Canada. When it comes to e-cigarettes (e.g., vaping), 6 percent of people aged 20 to 24 reported using one in the past 30 days.
So, can smoking—especially “vaping”—really be that bad for you?
Vaping and juuling are terms for using e-cigarettes, which are devices used for inhaling chemicals, sometimes mixed with nicotine. Rather than producing stinky tobacco smoke, they produce a vapour that often contains added smells and flavours. They’re often thought to be much safer than cigarettes because they don’t contain tobacco. However, emerging research shows that they aren’t quite as safe as we’ve been led to believe.
Q: How does smoking regular cigarettes affect your health?
A: All the evidence points to the fact that smoking cigarettes is bad for you—which shouldn’t be surprising, considering health officials have known—and talked about this—for years.
Because it bears repeating, each year, 45,000 Canadians die from a tobacco-related disease, according to the Government of Canada. This is no surprise; smoking isn’t just bad for your lungs—it affects almost every organ in your body.
- Smoking increases your risk of heart disease, respiratory problems, and cancer all over your body (not just in your lungs).
- A cigarette habit can negatively affect fertility in both men and women.
- Smoking hurts your bone health, making a season-ending break on the soccer field more likely.
- Overall, smoking lowers your immune function, making it more likely that you’ll get hit with a nasty cold when you really need to cram for finals or are prepping for spring break.
Q: How bad is vaping, though, really?
A: Early research on the health effects of e-cigs says they’re not exactly a healthy choice. A 2018 study on the effects of e-cigs published in Vascular Medicine found that smokers who vaped a nicotine-containing liquid had elevated heart rates and high blood pressure for longer periods after vaping than those who smoked regular cigarettes.
The concerning thing here is that there’s not enough research yet on how vaping could affect you long-term. So, even though some studies suggest one vape session isn’t as bad as smoking one cigarette, we don’t know how vaping could affect your future health. There’s also a ton of variation in what’s inside vaping liquids (e.g., some contain nicotine, but some don’t). We know from years of research that nicotine is harmful to our health, but we don’t know much about how the other chemicals found in vaping liquids could affect us.
Other forms of tobacco are hard on your body, too. Tobacco containing hookah (shisha) causes the same diseases that regular cigarettes do, and an hour-long hookah session is equivalent to smoking 10 cigarettes, according to the CDC in the US. Also, like cigarettes, hookah gives out harmful secondhand smoke.
Q: Is it that bad to have an occasional cigarette now and then?
A: It’s tempting to think that all the really scary stats about smoking or cringeworthy stories in anti-smoking commercials will only happen if you smoke two packs a day for 30 years—like, there’s no way that could happen if you just have the occasional cigarette with friends, right?
It’s true that lighting up more often is definitely worse than the occasional cigarette. But even the latter can have pretty serious consequences. A 2014 report from the US Surgeon General examining the past 50 years of smoking found that just a few cigarettes a day increases your risk of heart disease.
If your friend offers you a cigarette or a drag from a vape pen, and you don’t want to smoke, saying no can be easier said than done. To gracefully decline, think about it beforehand and prep ways to say no. Try something like:
- “No, thanks; I’m getting in shape for track.”
- “My girlfriend/boyfriend hates the smell.”
- “No, thanks; it really throws off my taste buds.”
- “Thanks, but I don’t smoke.”
Above all, decline confidently (even if you don’t feel confident)—the more confident you sound, the more likely it is that people won’t make a big deal out of it.
Q: Does vaping and juuling make you more or less likely to smoke regular cigarettes?
A: A lot of e-cig companies claim vaping is a great way to quit smoking—or keep yourself from getting addicted in the first place. If you’re not a smoker, vaping can increase your exposure to some harmful chemicals that could negatively affect your health, including nicotine, which is addictive.
If you’re a smoker, according to Health Canada, vaping products typically only have a fraction of the toxic and cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco. Because e-cigarettes deliver nicotine in a less harmful way than smoking, they may reduce health risks for smokers.”
“While evidence is still emerging, some evidence suggests that e-cigarette use is linked to improved rates of success when quitting,” Health Canada says.
Q: What’s the deal with secondhand and thirdhand smoke?
A: Let’s start with regular cigarette smoke. When you or someone around you smokes, the toxic cloud spreads everywhere, infecting the air that people around you’re breathing (aka secondhand smoke) and even polluting the surfaces around you (aka thirdhand smoke). Most notably, cigarette smoke smells. The smell gets in your hair and clothes and holds on, leaving you smelling like a dirty ashtray all day.
Over 1,000 nonsmokers die in Canada each year from health problems caused by secondhand smoke, according to a 2004 study in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.
We’d all rather our hair smelled like peppermint than an ashtray, which is why ashtray shampoo won’t be coming to a salon near you. Particles from smoke linger in clothes and hair for hours or days, even if it’s not yours. Nicotine and other chemicals remaining from smoke can sink into carpet, furniture, cars, walls, and other surfaces, and stay there long-term, according to a 2011 study in Environmental Health Perspectives. This contamination is known as thirdhand smoke. It’s believed to be a health hazard, especially to children, according to a 2009 study in Pediatrics.
E-cigarettes are devices that let you inhale vapour mixed with chemicals. Some e-cigarettes contain nicotine. Some people vape in the hope that it will help them quit traditional smoking.
“We know e-cigarettes are less harmful than smoking. But we also know e-cigarettes aren’t going to be safe for long-term use. Inhaling any chemical, nicotine or otherwise, deeply into lungs there’s going to be some risk. We have very little information about what’s in that liquid,” said David Hammond, Associate Professor of Public Health at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, to CBC News in 2014. E-cigs are new, so we don’t know their long-term effects.
Q: How expensive is smoking?
A: As of April 2018, a carton of smokes (200 cigarettes) in Canada ranged from $96 in Quebec to $139 in Manitoba, according to the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association/Smoking and Health Action Foundation in Ontario. If you went through a carton a month, you’d spend about $1,668 a year. For that, you could lease a car or take a Caribbean vacation every year.
There’s a broader cost, too. Tobacco-related illnesses were to blame for an estimated $4.4 billion in health care per year and $17 billion in social costs, according to Health Canada.
More trivia: The three priciest provinces/territories to smoke in are Manitoba, Yukon Territory, and Northwest Territories.
Q: Is smoking bad for the environment?
A: If you care about ditching plastic straws to save the sea turtles, you should also consider the environmental impact of smoking. Cigarette butts are the most common form of litter—4.5 trillion butts are thrown away every year, according to an estimate published in the British Medical Journal. This is a major problem, since cigarettes aren’t biodegradable, meaning the butts will be polluting the environment for years and years to come. The same study found that the toxic chemicals that leach out of just one cigarette butt are especially harmful for marine life—one butt was enough to kill freshwater fish in a one-liter tank.
E-cigarettes aren’t any better. A recent study from the European Commission found that chemicals in both the lithium ion batteries and the disposable cartridges found in e-cigs are toxic to the environment and can be potentially harmful to plants and animals.
Q: Do people actually think smoking looks cool?
A: Smoking gives you bad breath, stains your teeth, and ages you (not in the good way—we’re talking wrinkles). Nevertheless, the stereotype that it’s “cool” persists for some. In actuality, 66 percent of students across Canada surveyed in a recent Student Health 101 poll said that smoking is never attractive.
Social angst is a thing. Dialetical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), can relieve social discomfort that has lifelong benefits, not lifelong harms. The “dialetical” piece refers to two valid but opposing thoughts: e.g., “I want to quit smoking” and “I would feel calmer right now if I had a cigarette.” DBT helps us understand our own stress triggers and develops effective self-soothing techniques.
Q: OK, so how do I quit?
A: Trying to quit without a plan can leave you without a way to cope when you get cravings. You’re more likely to succeed with a structured approach (e.g., choosing a date to quit, rewarding yourself, taking control, and sticking to the program), says the Government of Canada.
Most importantly, if you want quitting to be a permanent lifestyle change, your strategy has to be sustainable. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to ditch your friends or change everything about your life. Look for life changes that you can live with, check out former smokers’ strategies, make a list of things that are important to you, and try to keep doing them after quitting.
Effective approaches include:
- Nicotine replacement therapy (e.g., gum) or prescription medications (e.g., bupropion), according to the Cochrane Collaboration, which reviews medical studies. In studies, using one of these two substances helped 80 percent more people to quit compared to a placebo.
- Find stressbusting alternatives to “just one” cigarette when you have a bad craving. One cigarette leads to more, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Sign up for a text-message, Twitter, or email program for regular quitting tips and support. Check with your provincial resources for text-message programs and daily “quitspiration.”
Free personalized quitting support is available in every province and territory. This typically includes phone and online counselling and free or reduced-cost medications, e.g., nicotine patches. Find free support in your area.
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