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Dr. James F. Pankow is the Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technologies at the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at PSU. He has a joint appointment in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and in the Department of Chemistry. His groundbreaking research on the chemistry of tobacco products - and how that chemistry promotes habit initiation and fosters long-term addiction - continues to attract national attention.
Can you really vape vitamins? That’s the claim from companies like VitaCig, the latest innovation from a company that built a marijuana e-cig and is working on an alcoholic one.
VitaCig is a "nicotine-free e-cig that delivers a water-vapor mixed with vitamins and organic flavors." All VitaCigs are said to contain Vitamins A, B, C, E, and CoQ10, an enzyme complex the American Cancer Society says may have beneficial health effects but has not been adequately studied.
The $5 disposable devices comes in five varieties: Calm, Relax, Refresh, Grace, and Energize, each boasting attendant health benefits. VitaCig users — some of whom are also shareholders of its parent company mCig’s penny stock — say they love it.
A VITACIG CONTAINS 1 IU OF VITAMIN A, OR 1/5000TH OF THE DAILY RECOMMENDED DOSE
However, the health claims are thin. To start, the amount of vitamins in each VitaCig is low to negligible. If you’re an adult woman, one VitaCig contains 1/11th of your daily recommended dose of Vitamin B1, 1/150th of your daily Vitamin E, 1/750th of your daily Vitamin C, and just 1/5000th of your daily Vitamin A.
Inhalation is also an inefficient way to ingest vitamins, says John Newsam, a chemist with Tioga Research and a member of the American Chemical Society (ACS), because the particles must be very small in order to travel deep into the lungs where there is close contact with blood vessels.
For that reason, inhalation is usually reserved as a delivery mechanism for medicines that require very small doses or target the lungs themselves, like asthma inhalers. For vitamins, it makes little sense — especially since taking vitamins in pill form is highly effective.
That means even less than the measly 1 IU of Vitamin A in a VitaCig will actually make it into your body. The bit that does is more likely to enter through the mucous membranes in your mouth rather than through the lungs, contrary to claims on VitaCig’s website. "In practical reality, you’re actually delivering very little material by this route, even if it works perfectly," Newsam says.
VitaCig says it has done no testing on how much of the vitamin is actually ingested.Furthermore, vitamins can change their chemical composition when heated, which could cause them to lose their potency or degrade into something harmful, says Portland State University professor and ACS member James Pankow.
VitaCig says it has done no testing on what happens to vitamins when heated in the device.
Although the company’s website is splashed with a giant banner that says "Vitamin Electronic Cigarette" and much of the marketing materials discuss vitamins, CEO Mark Linkhorst says the "vita" does not stand for "vitamin." "Vita is ‘life’ in Latin," he tells The Verge.
VitaCig never says explicitly that vaping vitamins will make you healthy. Everything is implied. The company also lumps aroma additives into the same "supplemental facts" list as vitamins, implying they have health benefits. Those handwavey "supplemental facts" lists are the main content on the "science" section of the website.
Linkhorst seemed torn on the importance of vitamins to VitaCig.
"WE’RE NOT CLAIMING THAT THIS IS IN ANY WAY A WAY TO CONSUME VITAMINS AND TO BE HEALTHIER."
"We’re not claiming that this is in any way a way to consume vitamins and to be healthier," he says. "It’s just an ingredient added to an e-liquid, of which there’s thousands out there." (About 8,000,according to the World Health Organization.) "But not many are using vitamins," he adds, a nod to the VitaCig’s uniqueness in the market.
There are other e-cig suppliers advertising a vitamin-enhanced experience. Vitamin Smoke e-liquid advertises Vitamin C, Echinacea, and Vitamin B12 in addition to caffeine and nicotine. Anasazi Vapors offers herbal blends and "vitamin adders" — one customer reportedly said vaping the vitamin-enhanced "Nutri-Mix" made him feel 18 again.
Vita Vapes, a competitor to VitaCig, is careful to say that you can’t vape all the vitamins you need. "Vaping vitamins is an alternative method of supplementing vitamins," the company says on its website. "We recommend it to those who are looking for a new way outside of taking vitamin pills." Vita Vapes claims it is possible to deliver the daily dose of Vitamin B12 through vapor, but makes no promises. It also acknowledges that "a good portion of the atomized solution is expelled when exhaled."
The issue of vaping vitamins is subordinate, or course, to the question of whether vaping is safe at all. The WHO says there is "insufficient evidence to conclude that e-cigarettes help users quit smoking" and that more research is needed to determine the full health effects. This uncertainty has undermined the effort to regulate the booming industry, and the Food and Drug Administration is still refining the rules it drafted in April.
THE ISSUE OF VAPING VITAMINS IS SUBORDINATE TO THE QUESTION OF WHETHER VAPING IS SAFE AT ALL
In the uncertain regulatory environment, e-cig companies are getting bolder about pushing bogus health claims. VitaCig says its "Grace" e-cig contains collagen for "vaporized skincare," but Pankow says collagen isn’t volatile. "Delivering collagen by e-cigarettes is absurd," he says.
With names like "Vita Vapes" and "VitaCig," these companies are clearly trying to make it sound like their products are healthy. What’s not as clear is whether their customers really care one way or the other. Joseph Yarbrough is a VitaCig shareholder who uses the product as a substitute for tobacco. He would feel "very disappointed in being misled," if it turned out that VitaCig wasn’t delivering vitamins, he says. But at the same time, he doesn’t care how many vitamins he’s getting. The product makes people feel like they’re being healthy, he says, so why does it matter? It all boils down to the argument all e-cig users make when their habit is challenged: it’s still better than cigarettes. Probably.