Smoking tobacco is a known health risk and is estimated to kill about 6 million people a year worldwide.
The nicotine in tobacco is also incredibly addictive, as anyone who has tried to quit knows all too well.
Around 2007 an alternative hit the US market in which nicotine, water, a humectant and liquid flavors are heated to release vapors that the user inhales. This gives the shot of nicotine, simulates smoking cigarettes and has added flavors that make it more appealing.
The manufacturers and marketers of these products claim there are little to no health risks associated with them, but are these products actually safer for you than using tobacco?
Or are you better off going completely vapor, smoke and tobacco free?
Read on to find out…
The product I’m talking about is the electronic cigarette (e-cigarettes) and nicotine vaporizers.
“Vaping,” as the act of using these devices is called, has been touted as being safer for you than smoking tobacco because these products don’t expose the user to the 7,000 chemicals present in tobacco smoke, including 69 carcinogens and toxins.(1)
And while there’s not a lot of research yet available on the long-term use of e-cigarettes, the initial studies pouring in suggest these products are not all together harmless.
Carcinogens lurk in e-cigarettes
While the toxic chemicals in e-cigarettes are much lower than tobacco, toxic chemicals are still present,(2) so using them still attacks your delicate tissues, organs, cells and immune system.
One of these chemicals is formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.(3)
A study published in 2015 in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that, when the humectants (propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin or a combination of the two), are heated they degrade into formaldehyde-releasing agents.
The study found that more than 2% of the solvent had converted to these chemicals, bringing the concentration higher than the amount of nicotine in the vaporizer.
At this rate, they concluded the exposure to formaldehyde from long-term use of e-cigarettes created a cancer risk 5 to 15 times as high as long-term cigarette smoking.(4)
The e-cigarette industry refutes this claim, saying the study was faulty and the results “hyped up” because the researchers burned the liquid at a higher level than normal.(5)
The average voltage of an e-cigarette battery is 3.7 volts. The study found the formaldehyde-releasing agents at 5 volts. Variable voltage batteries are available for e-cigarettes up to 6 volts, so it’s not impossible that people are burning the liquid hotter than “normal.”
Regardless, formaldehyde isn’t the only toxic chemical lurking in e-cigarettes.
Other studies have shown that the man-made chemical flavoring agents can cause health problems as well.
A 2014 study tested 51 flavors of e-cigarettes, including sweet flavors like fruit, candy and alcohol or “cocktail” flavors. The researchers found diacetyl in quantities up to 239 micrograms per e-cigarette in 39 flavors.
Diacetyl was used in butter flavoring agents in microwave popcorn until about 10 years ago when it was discovered that inhaling this chemical causes Bronchiolitis obliterans,(6) an irreversible lung disease characterized by inflammation and obstruction in the lung’s smallest airways, causing symptoms similar to tobacco-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
This deadly condition is also known as “popcorn lung,” named for the microwave popcorn factory workers that were first diagnosed with it.
This same study found acytelpropionyl in 23 of the flavors and acetoin, one of the additives in cigarettes, in 46 flavors.(7)
Inhalation of acytelpropionyl has been shown to cause scarring on the tissue (fibrosis) of the esophagus in rats, and researcher believe it may also cause “popcorn lung” in humans.(8)
And yet another study found particles of heavy metals such as tin, nickel, silver, iron and silicate in e-cigarette vapor in quantities greater than that found in conventional tobacco cigarettes.
Inhaling these metal particles is known to cause respiratory distress and disease.(9)
Vaping weakens your immune system, causes cell damage
Not only can the chemicals and other unregulated junk in e-cigs cause respiratory diseases, but it’s also been shown to weaken immune systems, increase oxidative stress in cells as well as damage cells in ways that could lead to cancer.
A 2015 study looked at mice exposed to e-cig vapor in amounts relative to human smokers, determined by the comparable amount of cotinine concentrations, a biomarker for tobacco exposure, in their blood.
- E-cigarette vapor contains 700 billion free radicals per puff.
- Only 2 weeks of exposure to e-cigs produced a significant increase in oxidative stress and moderate macrophage-mediated inflammation (inflammation caused as the body’s reaction to infection).
- Mice exposed to e-cig vapor had decreased immune response, especially in their ability to clear bacteria and viruses from their lungs, increasing risk of death from such infections.(10)
None of these side effects of vaping are any good for your body, inviting cell damage and inflammation which in turn invites a host of problems ranging from respiratory disease to, possibly, cancer.
With that being said, some smokers may see vaping as a way to “ease out of” smoking.
Here’s what one study showed …
E-cigarettes as a (risky) way to quit smoking
Vaping may be helpful in weaning off cigarettes, as a nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). A 2014 study in England found that, among smokers trying to quit, those who used an e-cigarette reported continued abstinence from tobacco more than those who either used a prescribed NRT or no aid at all.(11)
However, this study doesn’t indicate if the participants used the e-cigarettes as a bridge to a nonsmoking, tobacco-free lifestyle, or if they simply traded one bad habit for another.
Though if the exploding growth of the industry is any indication — up to $2.87 billion in 2015, up from $1.7 billion in 2014 and just $20 million in 2008 — I’d put my money on the latter.(12)
Even though a direct link between e-cigarettes and cancer has yet to be established, we know that cell damage and inflammation are the first steps to developing far worse conditions down the road.
And don’t forget cigarettes were available and socially accepted for decades before research showed a definitive connection between smoking and cancer.
I think it’s safe to say the initial research on e-cigs indicates their potential to cause just as many health problems as cigarettes.
Being free of all tobacco products and the chemicals found in e-cigarettes is the best way to go. If you’ve tried to quit nicotine and have yet been unsuccessful, don’t give up!
You can live well without smoking, and once you do your health and quality of life will improve.
And that’s something worth fighting for.
- What’s in a cigarette? http://www.lung.org/stop-smoking/smoking-facts/whats-in-a-cigarette.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/
- Levels of selected carcinogens and toxicants in vapour from electronic cigarettes. http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/23/2/133.short
- Known and probable human carcinogens. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/generalinformationaboutcarcinogens/known-and-probable-human-carcinogens
- Hidden formaldehyde in e-cigarette aerosols. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1413069
- New e-cig study hypes formaldehyde fears based on faulty experiments. http://vaping.info/news/2015/new-e-cig-study-hypes-formaldehyde-fears-based-faulty-experiments
- Bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome in chemical workers producing diacetyl for food flavorings. http://www.atsjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1164/rccm.200611-1620OC#.VwaVI_krLIU
- Flavoring chemicals in e-cigarettes: diacetyl, 2,3-pentanedione, and acetoin in a sample of 51 products, including fruit-, candy-, and cocktail-flavored e-cigarettes. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=e-cigarette+popcorn+lung
- Bronchial and bronchiolar fibrosis in rats exposed to 2,3-pentanedione vapors: Implications for bronchiolitis obliterans in humans. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22215510
- Metal and Silicate Particles Including Nanoparticles Are Present in Electronic Cigarette Cartomizer Fluid and Aerosol. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0057987
- Exposure to electronic cigarettes impairs pulmonary anti-bacterial and anti-viral defenses in a mouse model. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0116861
- Real-world effectiveness of e-cigarettes when used to aid smoking cessation: A cross-sectional population study. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/add.12623/full
- Electronic cigarette statistics.