These new vape companies want you to inhale ... vitamins
I sit in my living room, contemplating the slim, smooth aquamarine tube. Its color is a few shades removed from Tiffany blue, and it’s an inch or so longer than a cigarette. I do not smoke anything ever, but in order to psyche myself up for the full experience of the thing, I try to channel that famous picture of Audrey Hepburn on the Breakfast at Tiffany’smovie poster, a long, slim cigarette holder hanging out of her mouth.
This isn’t a cigarette, though. It’s a Breathe “citrus flavored vitamin B12 mist” — a.k.a. a vitamin vape. It costs $45 for three pens. And disposable vaporizer pens like this one, containing substances like vitamins and essential oils instead of nicotine “e-juice,” are increasingly being marketed to wellness-minded consumers.
After one drag on the vaguely sweet-tasting vape, I promptly start coughing, spewing out a fruity puff of vapor. It doesn’t really feel like wellness. It feels like a violation of my alveoli.
Vapes, or e-cigarettes, are all over the news right now, especially Juul, the brand that’s trendy among teens because of its sleek profile and fruity flavors. They’re so popular and so controversial that the Food and Drug Administration is now actively targeting manufacturers that push nicotine vapes; it may even move to ban some. There is growing concern in the medical and public health communities about the immediate harmful effects on young people’s developing brains and bodies and the unknown longer-term effects.
And like so many concepts that catch on in wellness circles, companies that sell these products take something with a veneer of scientific backing or credibility, couch it in language that sounds healthy, and then sell it to you via a marketplace with very little regulation or oversight. It’s not surprising that vape technology, which is so trendy right now, is the newest frontier for selling so-called wellness. But this technology is so new that it’s not clear if these vapes are helpful or harmful.
The genesis of a “healthy” vape
The Breathe vape is a good case study in how the wellness industry uses an inkling of evidence to package a product as healthy. The company’s founder, George Michalopoulos, is not a physician, but during a phone call, he said he worked in social media. He developed a B12 vape in 2013 for his personal use, he says, because he was a vegan at the time. (Many vegans need to take vitamin B12 supplements so they don’t become deficient.)
He says he was interested in it because he “enjoys the process of vaping.” He points to a few studies done in the 1950s and ’60s that showed promise for the use of inhaled vitamin B12 for people with deficiencies, which are linked prominently on Breathe’s site.
Michalopoulos says people have told him anecdotally that their vitamin B12 levels increased after using it and have shared “copies of their blood test results” with him. He also said he is paying an outside lab to perform a clinical study, sometimes done by supplement and skin care companies, mainly for marketing purposes so that they can quote data and make more specific claims. “I’d rather people understand that this is still a young science,” he says.
What he did not say in our phone call, but which I confirmed later, is that he also owns VitaminVape, which charges $39 for three pens. He founded it a few years before Breathe, which he launched at the end of 2017 to appeal to “vegans and B12 enthusiasts.” The website language, design, and testimonials are all the same as what’s on the Breathe website. The difference is that VitaminVape uses a synthetic form of vitamin B12 and Breathe uses a naturally-derived form. A representative said “serious vegans and wellness consumers” prefer the latter.
VitaminVape has been mentioned in several negative stories in the press exploring the legitimacy of these types of vapes, mainly pointing out that they are scientifically unproven and have potentially unknown risks.
Michalopoulos is savvy about the claims that he makes for Breathe. The site states, “Each diffuser contains 100s of breaths of natural energy with no caffeine, no sugar crash, no calories and no nicotine.” It’s considered a supplement, and as such, the company cannot make any specific claims about what it supposedly can do. There is nothing about veganism on the site. The FDA can issue a warning to supplement companies that make claims that seem drug-like. Michalopoulos says he tells people to check with their doctors first, but that recommendation is buried in an FAQ section on the site.
What is vitamin B12 and who needs it?
Breathe sells only one type of vape, which it claims delivers vitamin B12. According to the company, five to 10 breaths equals “approximately 333 mcg of B12 (>8,000% Daily Value).” Vitamin B12 is a substance humans do not produce themselves yet need for a variety of important bodily functions like forming red blood cells, promoting neurological functioning, and synthesizing DNA. It’s present in foods like meat, milk, fish, and eggs, which is why vegans are often deficient.
There’s also a rare disease called pernicious anemia whereby people can’t absorb vitamin B12 via their gastrointestinal tracts because they lack an important protein called intrinsic factor. Older adults and people with other gastrointestinal problems can also be susceptible to vitamin B12 deficiencies. They can get it via injections or nasal sprays or gels, according to Dr. Ron Crystal, the chair of the genetic medicine department and a practicing pulmonologist at Weill Cornell/New York Presbyterian. He’s also studied nicotine vapes and their propellants, which can include things like propylene glycol, flavorings of unknown origin, and glycerin.
What’s important to note, though, is that true deficiency is rare and you can’t self-diagnose it. Vitamin B12 deficiency can have vague side effects like fatigue, so doing proper lab testing through a doctor is crucial, according to Crystal. And taking too much vitamin B12 can have side effects such as rashes, acne, increasing blood pressure, facial flushing, and discolored urine. “It is a drug, essentially,” says Crystal.
“If you’re deficient, your doctor should prescribe what you should be doing. If you have normal levels, adding more doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t help,” he says. “The concept of just taking vitamin B12 to increase your energy and so on is a myth.”
Is inhaling vitamins a thing we should do in the first place?
But because some of the symptoms of deficiency are so vague, it’s a myth that has helped promote a long history of dubious vitamin B12 usage, popularized by celebrities. Who can forget the now-infamous episode of The Simple Life when Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie got vitamin B12 shots in their butts? (I, for one, cannot.) Madonna also gets them and supposedly once even administered one to Justin Timberlake. They’re commonly offered via injection or IV drip at wellness clinics; some services will even bring them to you.
There’s not a lot of evidence that you can absorb vitamins by inhaling them, though. There have been no studies more recent than the old ones cited by Breathe and others, except for a few on nasal sprays, which exist in prescription form. There certainly haven’t been any studies on B12 delivery via vape.
Normally when you take a vitamin (or eat food, for that matter) enzymes in your stomach and all along your colon break it down until its smaller chemical components can be absorbed into your bloodstream. Nasally, vitamin B12 can be absorbed across epithelial cells, which line the nasal cavities and airways. Epithelial cells act as a gateway for things to be absorbed or blocked. This is how medicines like asthma inhalers are able to penetrate into the lungs.
Crystal says if a person is deficient, “the concept that vitamin B12 can be absorbed through the lung epithelial cells is a rational concept.” But he says this with caveats: For one, the effects of delivering that aerosol via vape are totally unstudied. “You’re putting something inside your body and it’s unknown.”
With vaping, there’s also the matter of the propellant, as well as the other chemicals that help give the formula its flavor and convert it into an aerosol when you puff. Heating up the liquid ingredients could potentially affect how they act in the body and produce new chemicals. They “may cause some damage to the cells,” according to Crystal, though he says we just don’t know for sure yet how that would look long-term.
There haven’t been a ton of conclusive studies about vaping essential oils, flavorings, and propellants that can be in vaping fluids, but a preliminary study on cells suggest that some flavorings might cause cell damage. Breathe uses vegetable glycerin as its propellant, whose long-term effects when inhaled are not known. The bottom line is that no one really knows what kind of damage vapes, especially ones without nicotine, can do in either the short or long term.
The other potential problem is that because these products are considered supplements, they aren’t regulated by the FDA the same way drugs are. There’s not even a guarantee that the ingredients a company says are in a vape actually are there. Customers are expected to just trust that supplement companies are honest and that the ingredients are there in the amount they’re supposed to be. But studies, as in the one that was just released earlier this month that found 800 supplements were contaminated with prescription medications and other substances, prove that this is sometimes not the case.
Besides Breathe and VitaminVape, other brands on the market include VitaStik, which offers multiple combinations of essential oils and different vitamins, and Monq, which is just essential oils. Some brands call themselves a “mist” or “personal diffuser” or an “aromatherapy stick” and seem to want to avoid the word “vape.” Make no mistake, though: They are vapes.
The combination of an unproven mode of delivery plus a lack of regulation and transparency is something you’d be advised to stay away from. Even Dr. Oz, a person known to endorse all sorts of questionable practices, says to skip it. Need vitamin B12? Forget about Breakfast at Tiffany’s comparisons and … just eat breakfast.