The e-cigarette or ‘vaping’ craze has spawned a bizarre new product: the nicotine-free, vitamin-filled ‘nutrition inhaler’ – and experts warn it could be causing more harm than good.
Marketed as “the healthiest way to smoke”, companies such as VitaCig, Nutriair, VitaStik and VitaminVape have developed a range of products similar in appearance to e-cigarettes, but containing various vitamins instead of nicotine.
Supplements are mixed with a chemical called propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin so that it can turn into an aerosol when heated.
Common ingredients include caffeine, chamomile extract, melatonin, green tea extract, vitamin B-12 and vitamin C, marketed to improve sleep, energise, suppress your appetite to assist dieting, or reduce stress. None contain nicotine.
TND’s money editor James Fernyhough tests Nutriair
Nutriair, for example, claims to provide “great health benefits and taste simply amazing” and to “transport nutritional supplements to even the smallest areas of the lungs where they are absorbed into the bloodstream”, bypassing the digestive process.
But the Therapeutic Good Administration told The New Daily there is growing evidence raising concerns about the “inhalation toxicity of the ingredients” used in e-cigarettes.
“Although certain flavourings added to e-cigarettes may be considered safe for ingestion, this does not necessarily mean that these substances are safe for inhalation,” a TGA spokeswoman said.
“The TGA has not evaluated or approved any e-cigarette devices for the purpose of inhaling vitamins or essential oils and fruit extracts.
“The TGA advises consumers to approach online purchases of medicines with caution. Products available on international websites are not regulated by the TGA.”
Nutrition expert Amanda Patterson said the lungs are not designed for absorbing nutrients.
“Only the gastrointestinal tract is designed to digest and absorb macro and micronutrients, and have the mechanisms in place to then transport the nutrients around the body to where they are needed,” Ms Patterson said.
“At best, this sort of thing would be a waste of money, at worst it is a very real health threat.”
At the base of the Nutriair website there is a disclaimer in fine print which states: “Nutriair devices … have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, nor are they intended to treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition”.
It adds: “You agree to indemnify us for any adverse effects that may arise from improper handling and/or consumption of this product.”
Pharmacologist Ian Musgrave of the University of Adelaide said there is no firm scientific evidence to suggest there is any significant benefit to mouth absorption as opposed to absorption through the gut.
He said he did not quite understand the logic of marketing “pretend smoking” as a means of being healthier.
“Vaping is a reduced risk compared to smoking, but there are still some questions over its overall safety,” he told The New Daily.
“Is the vapourisation going to cause toxic particles? Maybe. Propylene glycol can generate damaging free radicals.
“Many of these ingredients are either unproven at any concentration – such as weight loss herbs – or are of dubious benefit.
“All these things suggest you are paying for an expensive placebo, even though it sounds cool and groovy, and possibly doing some harm if the concentrations absorbed are higher than recommended.”
Dr Musgrave said the best way to get vitamins is through a healthy, balanced diet.
Vaping vitamins targeting smokers
Corporate ethics and marketing expert Dr Michael Callaghan said these products push the limit as to what might be seen as socially responsible.
“The original cigarette ads back in the ’60s and ’70s emphasised health benefits of tobacco. History has told us that they continued to tell us it was healthy when they knew it wasn’t true,” he said.
“You can see the parallels here. These companies are copying the same playbook of using sexy machismo imagery.
“The problem with smoking in a lot of cases is disrupting the habitual behaviour. This encourages the perpetuation of that behaviour.”
Dr Callaghan said that while the ingredient propylene glycol has been cleared as safe to eat, there is limited research about its health impacts through inhalation.
A spokeswoman for the TGA told The New Daily that substances other than nicotine used within e-cigarettes – including flavours – are also a “cause for concern”.