As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ramps up enforcement against vaping companies in an attempt to deter younger people from using nicotine products, some companies have shifted to so-called wellness vapes. So have consumers, who expanded their sights to caffeine, vitamins, and other substances that aren't traditionally inhaled by the lungs.

But vaping your vitamins may not reap the energy boost to game your productivity, or offer other health benefits, and once again the FDA has cast a skeptical eye on the products. The wellness vaping trend has grown in popularity in recent years, touting claims of increased focus, stronger immune function, and better sleep. These vapes have been relabeled as nutritional supplement diffusers, and they function similarly to other e-cigarettes, but without nicotine. 

Companies such as HealthVape and Inhale Health purport to deliver your daily dose of vitamin B12, vitamin C, melatonin, and essential oils after a few puffs from a vape. But touting health and wellness claims from vitamin vaping runs afoul of regulations, the FDA points out. Counter to some claims, vapes can't fight off tumors or help treat asthma, ADHD, or dementia. 

Usage of non-nicotine vape products is growing. A May study from Stanford University shows that roughly 26 percent of the 6,131 U.S. respondents between the ages of 13 to 40 have used an e-cigarette product sans nicotine. Seventeen percent of that cohort had used a non-nicotine e-cigarette within the past 30 days, while roughly 12 percent used one within the last week.

Jorge Mercado, a doctor specializing in pulmonary medicine at NYU Langone Hospital, says more patients have started inquiring about the safety of wellness vapes. Despite their increased use, his recommendation remains constant: Stay away from them.

The sprawling vitamin and supplement industry reaps billions in sales annually and its global market valuation clocked in at $151.9 billion in 2021, according to Grand View Research, a San Francisco business consulting and market research firm. While vitamin supplements can help people treat known deficiencies, some medical experts say that multivitamins are a waste of money. And yet, a September 2019 study examining supplement usage found that 77 percent of Americans are consuming vitamins and other supplements.

Last December, the FDA issued a warning about certain "wellness" vaping products, cautioning against some of the health claims made. For instance, the FDA says that many products may not be as pure as they say they are. And there's no way of completely knowing what exactly is in the product that you're inhaling. 

Yet this seems to be a market where consumers aren't listening to health authorities. George Michalopoulos is the CEO of two vaping companies. He oversees Breathe B12 and Vitamin Vape, both of which sell vitamin B12 vapes -- and he even has a patent for the technology. "I don't absorb oral forms of B12," Michalopoulos says, "so part of the reason I've created the product is for myself."

Michalopoulos says that his vapes use pharmaceutical-grade products and are without propylene glycol and diacetyl -- when inhaled, diacetyl (a chemical found in some e-cigarette flavoring) has been associated with causing bronchiolitis obliterans, or "popcorn lung," a condition that involves lung scarring and inflammation. 

But Michalopoulos is quick to say that he cannot market his product as one that improves vitamin B12 levels, and his website confirms that. Not a single claim appears from Breathe B12 or Vitamin Vape about boosting vitamin B12 levels -- though that wasn't always the case. 

The FDA sent Michalopoulos a warning letter last December over claims once featured on the website about the product's supposed efficacy. Vitamin Vape was one of four companies to receive such a letter from the agency that month.

Vitamin Vape once claimed that each vaporizer contained four times the amount of B12 you would receive in a shot and that was more effective than ingesting the vitamin in a tablet form. Vitamin Vape's former science webpage also cited vitamin B12 inhalation studies completed in the 1950s and 1960s. That webpage has since been removed.

Asked about why people may use wellness vapes, he posits that a large group may use it as an alternative to nicotine. Michalopoulos's vapes are not approved as cessation devices, or devices used for those that are looking to quit smoking (think skin patches, nicotine gum, nicotine lozenges, and so on.)

Michalopoulos says that he was motivated to start two companies in the same space after seeing different market needs. The way he views it, Vitamin Vape is a more affordable option compared to Breathe B12. He says the latter uses a higher quality form of vitamin B12.

There are four different types of vitamin B12 on the market -- the more common option is cyanocobalamin, a low-cost, synthetic form that is converted to methylcobalamin within the body after being ingested. Michalopoulos says Breathe B12 uses methylcobalamin, a more expensive version of vitamin B12. 

NYU's Mercado isn't buying it: "Just because it's safe to take [vitamins] one way doesn't mean that it's going to be safe with another type of absorption," says Mercado, who is also the associate section chief of the pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine unit at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn. "The lung is not your greatest organ to actually absorb medications through."

Many vitamins and other substances, Mercado points out, are lipophilic -- a substance that has an affinity for lipids or fats. But since the lung is not well equipped to manage lipids, the use of these products can lead to the potential development of lipoid pneumonia, a form of pneumonia that's difficult to treat since it creates bubbles within the lung that are made from fat. 

Research studies suggest that flavoring found in non-nicotine vapes is believed to cause oxidative stress to the body and damage lung cells. And it's not well understood if inhaled vitamins are even absorbed into the bloodstream.

Mercado says that the supplement industry remains largely unregulated, explaining that it does not face the same level of scrutiny as prescription drug medications. "When you have an unregulated industry, you don't really know what type of absorption you have with certain substances and vitamins," he says.

Much pushback against e-cigarettes also focuses on the industry's marketing techniques, which often attract minors. The menu of flavors offered by some e-cigarette companies mirrors what can be found at a candy shop or a fruit stand, like bubblegum or mango flavoring. Some companies even offer flavors that resemble children's cereal brands. 

As more teens sought out Juul pods (disposable cartridges filled with nicotine and other flavorings that can then be vaped), the company discontinued sales of certain flavored pods in 2018. By 2020, Juul completely banned the sale of its mint and fruit-flavored pods. And with the FDA's recent move in June that effectively bans Juul altogether, the trend of so-called wellness vapes could see a boost. 

But that doesn't mean that it should. Those who struggle with vitamin absorption problems have other options, such as injections. And if you're looking for a boost of energy, but aren't keen on adding more pills to your routine, vitamin B12 is also sold in a liquid form.

Mercado points to a golden rule that other pulmonologists adhere to: The only thing that's safe for humans to inhale is air.