Nearly a quarter of students in the UAE used an e-cigarette in the past month, a study has found.
Research carried out at three universities in the country recorded higher vaping rates than other recent studies in the Emirates and elsewhere in the Gulf.
Experts have given a warning that while e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes, they do pose a risk to health and could be a gateway to more hazardous tobacco smoking.
Students at one private and two public universities were polled on whether and when they had used e-cigarettes.
Researchers found 23 per cent said they had smoked e-cigarettes in the past month, while 37 per cent had used them in their lifetime.
The researchers, from Maudsley Health and Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital, both in Dubai, and Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, published their findings in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
E-cigarettes are electronic devices that contain a liquid and include nicotine, a battery and an atomiser, which produces vapour instead of cigarette smoke.
In the paper, the researchers highlighted a 2021 study, which found only 3.7 per cent of university students in the UAE were current e-cigarette smokers.
A 2020 study in Qatar put the figure at 14 per cent, while in Saudi Arabia, the latest research points out, scientists have found figures of 7.2 per cent (in 2020) and 10.6 per cent (in 2018).
Gender divide over smoking habits
The researchers behind the latest study found that students who used e-cigarettes were more likely to also smoke other forms of tobacco, such as traditional cigarettes, shisha or medwakh pipes.
Male students, who made up about a quarter of the study’s 240 participants, were about twice as likely as females to have used e-cigarettes in their lifetime. Men tended to perceive them as less harmful than females did.
“This is consistent with previous research about tobacco smoking among university students in the UAE, where males are more likely to consume tobacco,” the researchers wrote.
“In the GCC, this pattern has also been observed in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. This could be due to smoking being more socially acceptable for males in this region and that they could also be subject to peer influence.”
Prof Kamran Siddiqi, professor in public health at the University of York in the UK, who researches smoking internationally, said the latest study, based on relatively small numbers and focused specifically on university students, may not necessarily indicate wider smoking rates among young people in the country.
More broadly, he said it was difficult to determine whether e-cigarettes were a “gateway” to the use of combustible cigarettes.
E-cigarettes not necessarily a tobacco alternative
While research has, he said, found that people who “vape” were more likely to go on to smoke traditional cigarettes, this did not necessarily indicate that one caused the other.
Another possible explanation is what researchers call common liability, when people who take up vaping are already more inclined to smoke cigarettes.
“In Britain people are more and more thinking along the lines of common liability, because despite young people experimenting with e-cigarettes, we haven’t seen a huge increase in smoking,” said Prof Siddiqi, who was not connected to the latest study.
Compared to combustible cigarettes, he said e-cigarettes caused “significantly less” harm — but not zero.
“Individuals are still inhaling liquids with the potential to damage the lungs,” he said. “Nicotine is highly addictive. There are other [substances] nicotine is mixed with. They could cause long-term lung damage.
“From the evidence, it’s nowhere near as toxic or potentially harmful as the smoke from combustible cigarettes. That said, nobody wants young people to take up e-cigarettes.”
The UK’s National Health Service describes e-cigarettes as “not completely risk free”, and “carry a small fraction of the risk of cigarettes”.
Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes do not produce carbon monoxide or tar, which Britain's National Health Service said were two of the most harmful substances found in tobacco smoke.
'Vaping helped me ditch tobacco fix'
Arjun Chandavarkar, 22, from India, used vaping to help him quit cigarettes while he was at university and uses a refillable device regularly throughout the day.
“Most of the times I tend to vape in the mornings, usually after meals and about six or seven times a day,” said Mr Chandavarkar, who lives in Dubai and works as a financial analyst.
“The frequency of when I vape isn’t particularly set in stone, but I vape for about two minutes 'per session'.
“It has helped me avoid cigarettes altogether.
“The majority of the people I know within my age group tend to use a vape. I would say in a group of about 20 people, 16-17 of them will vape.
“Considering the frequency of my vaping, I use one pod every two days, so I go through about four refills per week.
“I am worried about my health and the impact vaping has. While it does offer a much safer and healthier alternative to smoking, I haven’t come across any research that suggests vaping is completely free from harmful effects.
“That being said, I do exercise on a frequent basis, around five times a week, and tend to believe I’m mitigating the harmful effects of vaping through this exercise.
“However, based on my vaping experience over the last three or four years, I haven’t seen any harmful impact of vaping on my physical performance.”
'I don't know if it is healthier or not'
Karthik Mallya, a 23-year-old Indian designer living in Dubai, said vaping helps relieve stress.
“Almost all of my friends vape,” he said.
“I think I can count on one hand the number of friends I have that don't.
“Even friends of mine that don't use them regularly will usually vape when they get the chance to.
“I'm definitely worried and very aware of the health risks associated with vaping.
“Since there's not much research into the matter, I don't really know if it's a healthier alternative to smoking or not.
“As of now, I vape to curb my urge to smoke tobacco products.
“I like it because it doesn't stink up my clothes and hands and, of course, I like it for the many flavours.”