Leaving behind the craze of shisha, youths in Vietnam are taking up the new trendy hobby of 'vaping,' or e-cigarette smoking, as health experts raise concerns over the drawbacks of the tobacco alternative.
Enter any air-conditioned café in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City these days and one may find themselves engulfed in a haze of multi-flavored smoke coming from little palm-sized devices known as e-cigarettes, an emerging alternative to tobacco for smoke-craving youths in the country.
Electronic cigarettes are a handheld battery-powered device which simulates the sensation of smoking by vaporizing flavored liquids without tobacco combustion.
E-cigarette smokers inhale the vapor, an action popularly referred to as 'vaping,' in a similar manner to smoking.
Vape is the new fave
A newly opened coffee shop on Tran Viet Vuong Street in Hai Ba Trung District, Hanoi, which also provides vaping service to customers, is often crowded with vapers, most of whom are co-ed youngsters.
“There are hundreds of flavors of ‘juice’ [solution used in e-cigarettes] here, from flower, fruit, and candy, to coffee flavors,” the shop owner touted. “Prices range from VND200,000-300,000 [US$9-14] a 30-mililiter bottle to VND400,000-500,000 [$18-22] a bottle of the same size, depending on their origin.”
On each table are e-cigarettes made in China, along with small bottles of 'juice,' which the shop owner said were imported the U.S., Malaysia, the Philippines, and China.
At another coffee shop on the same street, a male employee’s sole job is to fix e-cigarettes and refill the devices with flavored liquids at customers’ requests.
“A bottle of ‘juice’ can last up to a week, but some vapers want to show off their style by vaping different flavors throughout the day,” the employee said.
K.T., a young vaper inside a coffee shop in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, said, “The sensation of exhaling the vapor is dope. It’s refreshing and aromatic, and does not affect other people’s health since it dissolves instantly into the air. Everyone in my circle of friends vapes.”
It has got easier to come across photos of Vietnamese youths exhaling ‘artistic’ puffs of smoke from e-cigarettes on social media in recent years.
Despite the amount of smoke produced by vaping being considerably greater than tobacco cigarettes, many vapers feel free to vape in public spaces and even exhale in front of non-smokers in the belief that “vaping is harmless to the direct or passive vaper, and can be used as a smoking cessation aid.”
A group of young vapers inside a coffee shop on Quan Thanh Street in Hanoi. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Is vaping harmless?
Pham Thi Hoang Anh, country director of Canada-based HealthBridge in Vietnam, an active organization in tobacco control and prevention in the Southeast Asian country, said all nicotine-containing products are toxic to a certain extent.
Anh added that apart from the harmful and addictive effects of nicotine, both tobacco and electronic cigarettes can pose additional health risks from chemical additives used in their processing, such as flavoring essential oils of unclear origin.
“The vapor from e-cigarettes enters the blood of vapers through permeable vessel walls, causing potentially harmful effects to body organs. The exhaled vapor is never the same as when it was inhaled,” Anh explained.
According to Anh, nicotine can negatively affect the nervous and cardiovascular systems in addition to being addictive, so the same regulations must be applied to e-cigarettes as to tobacco cigarettes or any other nicotine-containing products, meaning the use of these electronic vaporizers must be banned in public spaces such as schools, hospitals, and other sheltered public areas.
Dinh Ngoc Sy, former director at the Central Pulmonary Hospital in Hanoi, said the vapor produced by e-cigarettes still contains nicotine in principle, despite it feeling harmless due to the cooling sensation caused by the moisture.
Sy said any nicotine-containing product is addictive, and that any product that makes users dependent on it could in no way be completely harmless.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made an announcement last Thursday that e-cigarettes and other tobacco products like premium cigars and hookahs would be regulated across the country in the same way the U.S. government regulates traditional cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, U.S.-based television channel CNN reported the same day.
According to a report in 2014 by the World Health Organization on Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS), the solution used in e-cigarettes can contain nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerol, and other flavoring agents.
The same report suggested that vaping be banned indoors over fears that they can be as toxic to bystanders as normal cigarettes.
"The fact that ENDS exhaled aerosol contains on average lower levels of toxicants than the emissions from combusted tobacco does not mean that these levels are acceptable to involuntarily exposed bystanders,” the report said.
"In fact, exhaled aerosol is likely to increase, above background levels, the risk of disease to bystanders, especially in the case of some ENDS that produce toxicant levels in the range of that produced by some cigarettes."