When they first emerged on the market, e-cigarettes were often promoted as a safer way than cigarettes to deal with nicotine dependence. In the years since, however, evidence has emerged to suggest that vaping comes with plenty of its own health risks, even if they differ from those of smoking. A new study indicates that one of those risks might be the development of depression.
Smoking, Vaping, and Depression
Earlier studies have suggested that there is a strong link between tobacco use and mental health conditions such as depression. The likelihood of an individual having a mental health condition is about 70% greater if they’re a smoker. In addition, smokers with mental health conditions generally smoke more and have a harder time quitting.
The connection seems to hold true for e-cigarette users, too. A 2016 study found that e-cigarette users were more than twice as likely as the general population to report having had depression.
The current study, which was published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, aimed to take a broader look at the link between vaping and depression. The study surveyed almost 900,000 Americans and asked them about their e-cigarette use and their history of major depression. The results showed a significant correlation.
Participants in the survey were asked if they had used e-cigarettes, even once, and they were also asked if they had ever been diagnosed with a depressive disorder. Remarkably, e-cigarette users were found to be more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression. Those who vaped more frequently were also more likely to have depression than those who vaped less often.
Searching for a Cause
The survey does not necessarily suggest that vaping causes depression. The results only show that people who vape are more likely to be depressed. That could be because those with depressive disorders are more likely to take up vaping, rather than the other way around.
Still, the study’s authors caution that the connection shouldn’t be brushed aside as mere coincidence. The fact that both smokers and vapers are more likely to have a depressive disorder points the finger at nicotine, an ingredient common to cigarettes and most e-cigarettes, as the possible culprit.
Scientists know that nicotine makes changes to the way that users’ brains work, and the study’s authors believe these changes may lay the groundwork for depression. Nicotine alters the way that users process a pleasure-causing brain chemical called dopamine, and it also may make users more sensitive to stress and less able to cope with stress when it occurs.
Further research is needed to determine if nicotine actually causes or worsens depression. If that turns out to be true, the study’s authors suggest that regulators should take a hard look at how e-cigarettes are marketed to young people and those at risk of depressive disorders.
“At the very least, our findings warrant careful and thorough evaluation of e-cigarette use in both youth and adults with depression,” they write. “Physicians should consider the routine collection of information pertaining to e-cigarette use during clinic visits, especially in patients with depression, and routine counseling for those who use e-cigarettes, offering support to those who express willingness to quit.”
JAMA Network, Association Between e-Cigarette Use and Depression in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2016-2017
Annals of Internal Medicine, Prevalence and Distribution of E-Cigarette Use Among U.S. Adults: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 2016