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    The Vape Debate: What You Need to Know

    By Regina Boyle Wheeler
    WebMD Feature
    Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

    E-cigarettes: Are they a safe way for smokers to stop or a gateway to getting kids hooked on a habit that's known to cause deadly diseases of the heart and lungs as well as cancer?

    Public health experts and tobacco researchers are trying to find out. So far, results are mixed.

    One thing is certain. They're not hard to find. Stores selling them -- called "vape shops" -- are everywhere across the country.

    In the summer of 2016, new rules about their sale went into effect. So you have to be 18 to buy them and show an ID if you're under 27.

    The Basics

    E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that can look like a real cigarette or pen. Some with refillable tanks look a bit different. There are hundreds of brands, and they're sometimes marketed as a way to get your nicotine fix without the danger of cigarettes.

    They all work the same basic way:

    • They have containers filled with liquid that's usually made of nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals.
    • A heating device turns the liquid into vapor that you inhale when you take a drag.

    Using an e-cig is called "vaping."

    Are They Safe?

    Most contain the chemical nicotine, which is addictive. When you stop using it, you can go into withdrawal and feel depressed and crabby. Nicotine isn't good for people with heart problems. And some initial research shows it may hurt your arteries.

    It can also:

    • Harm the developing brains of kids and could affect memory and attention.
    • Damage unborn babies. Pregnant women shouldn't use anything with nicotine.

    But the concerns go beyond nicotine alone.

    Some brands contain chemicals including formaldehyde -- often used in building materials -- and another ingredient used in antifreeze that can cause cancer.

    Flavors in e-cigs also raise red flags. Some use a buttery-tasting chemical called diacetyl, which is often added to foods like popcorn. When it's inhaled, it can be dangerous.

    "Diacetyl is a well-known harmful chemical, which, among other things, causes a lung disease called 'popcorn lung,'" says Erika Sward, assistant vice president for national advocacy at the American Lung Association.

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