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Teens are vaping, not smoking. But is vaping safe?

A massive new survey has found that a large number of teens in the U.S. are vaping — far more than those who say they smoke cigarettes.

The Monitoring the Future survey, which is conducted by the University of Michigan, asked about 50,000 eighth, 10th, and 12th graders in the U.S. about a wide variety of things, including their sexual activity and use of drugs. The survey has been conducted every year since 1991.

According to this year’s findings, one out of every three high school seniors said they had used either a vape or e-cigarette at some point, and one in six had used it in the past month. About 10 percent of high school seniors said they intentionally vaped nicotine, but a lot of the teenagers surveyed weren’t sure whether they had used nicotine. By contrast, a little more than 4 percent of those surveyed said they smoked cigarettes daily.

When asked what they actually vaped, nearly 52 percent of high school seniors said “just flavoring,” followed by nicotine (33 percent), and marijuana or hash oil (11 percent). Disturbingly, a solid portion of eighth graders are also vaping, with 6.6 percent reporting that they had inhaled some kind of mist in the past year.

Vaping has been viewed for years as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes, and research has backed that up. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in early 2017 found that e-cigarettes are less toxic and safer to use than traditional cigarettes. Specifically, people in the study who traded smoking regular cigarettes for e-cigarettes for at least six months had lower levels of carcinogens in their bodies than people who continued to use regular cigarettes.

But that doesn’t mean that vaping is healthy per se — it just may not be as bad as standard cigarettes. “There is no way that we can think that taking in some compound that we don’t know that is made of a bunch of different chemicals is somehow good for you,” Osita Onugha, M.D., a thoracic surgeon and assistant professor of thoracic surgery at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Robin Koval, CEO of the Truth Initiative, agrees, especially when nicotine is involved. “Vaping with a nicotine-containing product is a bad idea,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Nicotine affects the brain, and it’s an addictive substance,” she says. “If your brain starts learning to like addictive substances when you’re an adolescent, it puts you at risk to be susceptible and vulnerable to other addictive substances as you get older.”

While vaping anything isn’t great for you, vaping nicotine can still give people some of the harmful effects of smoking, such as heart problems and high blood pressure, Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “What vaping may improve is the risk of lung cancer because you don’t get the delivery of the other 114 compounds that are in combustible cigarettes — but you still have side effects,” he says.

The propellant compound in vaping products is propylene glycol, which is a drying agent. As a result of regularly breathing it in, people can develop issues with dry mouth, nose, and throat, and are more susceptible to developing upper respiratory tract infections, Casciari says — and the risks are there regardless of age. People can also vape marijuana, THC, and opioids, which come with their own set of negative health effects, Onugha says.

Vaping also isn’t a tightly regulated industry, so it’s difficult for people to know what, exactly, they’re taking in and at what concentration. “The overwhelming majority of vape products contain nicotine,” says Koval. “Young people may not even realize they’re using a nicotine-containing product when they think they’re only vaping something that contains flavors.”

Casciari says he “absolutely” recommends that both teens and adults avoid vaping. “There are only a few things you can really do to extend your life,” he says. “Not smoking is one of them.”

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