You never see claims anywhere, even from manufacturers of e-cigarettes, that they’re safe. There are legal and regulatory reasons for this – but the underlying fact is that no one knows for certain how safe e-cigs really are. They’re a relatively new product, and no definitive scientific studies have been done. The studies that have been performed usually used a small sample base over a short period of time; some “research” is more anecdotal than scientific.
Are electronic cigarettes better for you than traditional tobacco cigarettes? Intuitively, it would certainly seem that way, and many health experts have offered the opinion that they are. But once again, there are no conclusive scientific studies that allow the industry to make that claim.
Individuals are free, of course, to look at what is known about tobacco cigarettes and what they do to the body – and then look at what’s not in e-cigarettes – and draw their own conclusions as many doctors have done.
One of the main reasons people stop smoking is because traditional cigarettes contain a very high level of carcinogens, substances which have been proven to cause to cancer. The evidence is overwhelming linking tobacco smoking to cancer.
However, e-cigs contain virtually none of the ingredients found in a tobacco cigarette. That means the myriad number of studies on tobacco don’t really apply – new studies need to be done. A few have been. In a 2010 study conducted at the Boston University School of Public Health, the levels of carcinogens in e-cigarettes were much lower – in fact, as much as 1000 times lower – than in traditional cigarettes. The study also concluded that “few, if any” of the substances found in ecigs were likely to cause a serious health risk.
A more recent study was conducted by a group called “60 Million Consumers in France,” which claims that it found carcinogens in the vapor people inhale when using an e-cig. However, this research has come under fire from industry officials who say that the methodology was flawed; for example, the e-liquid was heated way beyond realistic levels before the vapor was analyzed.
And a study conducted by the Journal of Public Health looked at how many nitrosamines, a cancer-causing agent commonly found in tobacco, were present in electronic cigarettes. The study found that the amount was significantly lower than in traditional tobacco products. Nitrosamine levels in ecigs were actually comparable to that found in nicotine patches, which are approved for use by the FDA.
Those are just three examples of the limited research which has been done to date on the safety of ecigarettes. Even medical experts can’t come to the type of uniform conclusion that they’ve reached about tobacco cigarettes. Many offer their opinions, but just about all say more studies are needed.
Effects on the Lungs
There are relatively few studies on how electronic cigarette use affects the lungs – although, again intuitively, it would seem that this could be more of a concern than cancer. Researchers at the University of Athens in Greece conducted a study that found that individuals who used e-cigarettes over a long period of time could be at risk, and that e-cigs could damage the lungs. The study focused on the amount of airway resistance present in smokers, vapers and non-users. It found those who used e-cigarettes had a significant increase in the amount of resistance present in their airways for about ten minutes. That’s not as much resistance as was present in tobacco smokers, but the scientists concluded that there was still a risk to the lungs of those who vape. Only about 50 people participated in this study, once again showing that no large-scale research has yet been done.
Another study done in Greece focused on the effects of electronic cigarettes on the body’s immune responses. Tobacco products increase the amount of lymphocyte, white blood cell counts, and granulocyte counts for an hour; that’s the body’s natural defensive reaction to the introduction of harmful substances. By contrast, the study showed that e-cigs did not have this effect; their users’ counts all remained normal. The conclusion was that electronic cigarettes did not stimulate the body’s natural defenses like tobacco products do, apparently because the vapor did not include harmful components which would trigger the body’s defenses.
Can They Help You Stop Smoking?
Another important question most people have is whether using an e-cig can help people quit smoking. The initial marketing behind electronic cigarettes emphasized their efficacy in this area. However, the US Food and Drug Administration objected to the claims because nothing had been proven and the devices weren’t regulated; the companies stopped using the “quit smoking” marketing campaigns after that.
A small amount of research has subsequently been done. The University of Auckland in New Zealand conducted a study on electronic cigarettes and smoking cessation, to determine whether people’s desire to smoke lessened if they used e-cigarettes. It found that the use of electronic cigarettes indeed reduced the desire to smoke, more than either non-nicotine e-cigs and or inhalers. Similar results were found in a study at the University of Catania in Italy, which concluded that e-cigarettes helped smokers to either reduce their tobacco intake or stop their use of tobacco completely, depending on their motivation – and claimed that e-cigarettes were actually helping to save lives.
Decades from now, this early research on electronic cigarettes will probably seem quaint. However, right now it’s all we have to go on – along with our own gut feelings about what’s in tobacco cigarettes compared to what’s in e-cigs.