EXCLUSIVE: A woman, who found vapes more addictive than cigarettes, had to have her lung sewed back to her chest after it collapsed and now faces severe health complications for the rest of her life.
By RHIANNON DU CANN
The UK Government has announced it is preparing to roll out a breakthrough, “world first scheme”, aiming to be an entirely smoke-free country by 2030 — reducing rates of smoking to just five percent or less. Part of the initiative, called “swap to stop”, will see one million smokers “encouraged” to exchange cigarettes with vapes. One in five smokers in England will be given a free vape starter kit as well as behavioural support.
But with the news has come serious pushback, especially from those who have had negative experiences with vaping. Between 3.2 and 4.3 million adults in UK vape regularly. While the smoking alternative has for many been an escape from the harmful effects of tobacco, others have experienced a far darker side of vaping.
One smoker who made the switch has warned others not to pick up the habit after she found it “more addictive” than puffing on cigarettes. Tina — not her real name — told Express.co.uk that vaping almost landed her on her deathbed with a collapsed lung, her life now permanently altered after the “horrendous” ordeal.
Tina took up vaping in 2018 in order to stop smoking. But the now 45-year-old, based in Oxford, quickly found the vapes more addictive than smoking, using them far more often than she ever did cigarettes.
Whereas Tina would never dream of smoking a cigarette inside her own home, she vaped wherever she went — even going to bed clutching her vape. “It would be panic stations in the morning if I couldn’t find it. It was always in my hand; it was awful,” she said.
Soon, not only was Tina hooked on the nicotine contained in the vape, but also the flavours — of which there are now more than 2,500 varieties — especially raspberry and strawberry, mixing the different flavours together to create a “lethal cocktail” and doubling the strength.
The various flavours vaping has to offer have been of particular concern to health and policy experts, who say the sweet flavours, reminiscent of popular treats, are encouraging children to take up the habit.
Dr Ali Kermanizadeh, lecturer in clinical biochemistry and toxicology at the University of Derby, has been researching the toxicity of e-cigarettes for some time.
Speaking to Express.co.uk, he pointed out that the long-term effects of all flavour chemicals “remain unknown”, adding that they are not usually included in the product label. He did, however, explained that some have demonstrated cytotoxicity, causing serious damage to cells.
“The use of appealing favours should be banned entirely to reduce addiction to vapes, especially in the young,” he added.
According to a YouGov study, 4.3million people in the UK use e-cigarettes (Image: Getty)
Vapes are a much cheaper alternative to smoking (Image: Getty)
As things stand, vaping is the lesser of two evils. Tobacco smoke contains some 250 chemicals known to be harmful to both smokers and non-smokers and many of those chemicals have been directly linked to devastating diseases like cancer. Yet, some early-stage research shows that nicotine inhalation from vapes does have an impact on the lungs.
The fear of the unknown has been enough for some countries to outright ban vaping, including Mexico, Thailand, India, Brazil, and Uruguay.
It is also frequently argued that kids who would never have smoked a cigarette a few years ago are now developing an addiction to vaping. Alarmingly, NHS figures show that nine percent of 11 to 15-year-old children have used e-cigarettes, an increase from just six percent in 2018. The increase has largely been blamed on the emergence of cheap disposable vapes that contain a set number of puffs and can be thrown away after use.
Tina used a vape that could be refilled with vaping liquids. She had originally planned to wean herself off it but she just “loved the taste of them”. Then, in July 2019, about a year after starting vaping, she caught a cold which then became a chest infection that would not budge.
The car bodyshop worker — who had never had respiratory issues before — went to the doctors several times but was diagnosed with asthma even though she “knew” it wasn’t that.
Then, three months after she first got the cold, she woke up to discover that she could barely walk or talk, had a “terrible” pain in her shoulder, and was struggling to breathe.
She drove herself to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a collapsed lung that had folded inwards. If Tina had delayed going to the hospital just one day she would not be here now.
“I was told that if I’d left it another 24 hours, I’d have had heart failure and died,” she said.
The following day she had a CT scan which showed that her lung was covered in blisters and punctured with three holes which she was told were caused by the vaping liquids. “I was really, really, terrified. I was lucky to still be here,” she said.
Doctors then had to sew her lung back into her chest, an operation that lasted several hours.
What happened to Tina is known as a collapsed lung. It is typically caused by a formation of a hole in the lung through which air escapes. The air fills the space outside the lung and chest wall, with increasing pressure leading to a partial or total collapse of the organ.
Dr Kermanizadeh explained that there is evidence that both smoking and vapes can increase the risk of the formation of air blisters which can lead to lung collapse.
When she left the hospital, her lung had a capacity of just 30 percent. For weeks, her mum was forced to take care of her as she needed to be given morphine for the pain. Her doctors have already warned her that she will likely suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the future, a collection of lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic obstructive airway disease.
The whole ordeal severely affected Tina far beyond her physical health: her hair fell out, she lost her job as she took so much time off recovering, and later, she suffered from depression.
She said: “I wasn’t expecting the surgery. I know people who have had collapsed lungs and they’ve just gone in, they’ve inflated the lung again, and they’ve gone home. But to have surgery was unexpected.
“I lost all of my hair. I think it was just so much trauma, the shock of what happened. It was awful. Since that happened, I have not been the same. I’ve put on lots of weight. I can’t exercise as much as I did.”
When she heard the news this week of the Government’s new initiative, Tina was shocked. She continued: “I couldn’t believe it. I can’t understand why they would encourage people to take that up. I just think anything you’re putting in your lungs is not good. If I’m in a social situation and I see someone vaping, I tell them what happened to me, that I nearly died.”
Tina’s story is starkly similar to that of 23-year-old university student Grace Brassell, whose lung collapsed last year. Her video on TikTok warning others against vaping after she said she began “coughing blood” went viral.
Dr Salim Khan, applied neurophysiology Professor and Head of Birmingham City University’s Therapies and Public Health department, questioned what the Government’s strategy would be for eventually weaning the one in five smokers off vaping.
He told Express.co.uk: “The intention of this vaping initiative is to wean people off cigarette smoking and then to stop them using vapes. Well, where is the guarantee that they are weaned off the vapes? What support is going to be put in place to wean people off nicotine after they’ve effectively switched to vaping? You’ve got to have those support mechanisms in place.”
Several experts agreed that vapes are safer than cigarettes when approached by Express.co.uk, but many stressed that the large concentration of nicotine is an important factor. And because there is no data on the long-term impacts of that inhalation, “we should err on the side of caution”.
But Dr Ruth Sharrock, a Respiratory Consultant at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead, went one step further and reiterated the importance of reducing the number of people who smoke full-stop.
Tobacco will kill at least one in two smokers early, and the risks are even higher for heavier smokers who started young.
The clinical lead for tobacco dependency for the North East and North Cumbria integrated care system stressed that as a doctor, vapes help smokers escape the “life-threatening harms of tobacco,” making them “an absolutely critical intervention and can’t be supported soon enough”.
She added: “I see patients suffering and unfortunately dying every day, from diseases such as COPD and lung cancer which are caused by smoking… We also have excellent, evidence-based knowledge on the harm reduction switching to e-cigarettes brings. People who continue to vape might not be ‘breaking the addiction’ but people do use nicotine products to quit smoking and do so often for many years.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson acknowledged that they do not have a full picture of the impact of vaping. They told Express.co.uk: “Vapes are substantially less harmful than smoking and can be an effective tool to help people quit smoking altogether.
“We recognise there are unanswered questions on the effects of their longer-term use so we have launched a Call for Evidence, which explicitly asks for more evidence on the potential long-term harms. This approach seeks to balance the public health opportunities vaping offers to smokers while protecting young people and non-smokers from using them.”