I’ve recently noticed a wealth of articles exploring the potential for harm associated with ‘smoking’ E-Cigarettes (also known as vaping) – for a few examples see here, here and here. But, with vaping steadily on the rise* what is the bigger picture?
One thing we can all agree on is that smoking cigarettes is pretty dam bad for you; certainly, the facts and figures associated with this habit don’t make for pleasant reading…
- There are about one billion smokers worldwide, of whom about half will die prematurely as a direct consequence of smoking.
- Smoking currently accounts for around 100,000, or about one in six, deaths each year in the UK.
- Smoking causes around 85% of the approximately 40,000 cases of (and deaths from) lung cancer in the UK each year. What’s more, smoking also contributes to the development of many other cancers, including oral cavity cancer, oesophageal and gastric cancer, kidney and bladder cancers, and pancreatic cancer.
…for more startling stats see here.
With this in mind, it’s worth noting that electronic cigarettes have traditionally been marketed as a ‘less harmful’ alternative to smoking and, in some cases, a stepping stone on the path to quitting the habit entirely. But what are they, what are the associated risks and are they really safer than conventional cigarettes?
Electronic cigarettes are designed to provide a measured dose of inhaled nicotine, whilst also mimicking the experience of smoking a conventional cigarette. Early models looked almost identical to normal cigarettes, with most even incorporating a realistic glowing tip. However, newer products come in all kinds of shape and sizes.
The most important difference between e-cigarettes and the real deal is the method of nicotine delivery. A regular cigarette burns tobacco and the user inhales the resulting nicotine-rich smoke, along with any associated nasties. E-cigarettes, however, produce a vapour by heating a solution of nicotine mixed with propylene glycol or glycerine. This method of nicotine delivery means that users still get the desired effect from the vapour but, without many of the toxic side effects associated with cigarette smoke.
It is now widely accepted that nicotine itself carries no serious health implications and is likely to be no more harmful than caffeine (for studies see here, here and here). The main problem with cigarettes is that they deliver their nicotine hit alongside a staggering array of carcinogens and toxins. These include: nitrosamines, acetone, acetylene, DDT, lead, radioactive polonium, hydrogen cyanide, methanol, arsenic and cadmium and vapour phase toxins such as carbon monoxide.
Since e-cigarettes do not burn tobacco, they do not deliver such a large doses of associated nasties. However, this does not mean that they’re harmless. Studies reveal that e-cigarettes contain small amounts of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde (both known human carcinogens); they can also deliver trace levels of carcinogenic nitrosamines, and some toxic metals such as cadmium, nickel and lead. A quick scan of the literature suggests that levels of these substances can vary hugely between e-cig brands, however, most studies agree that levels are generally low and are almost always significantly below those delivered by traditional cigarettes. Also, unlike traditional cigarette smoke, there appears to be little harm in the passive inhalation of vapour.
So at this point the case for e-cigarettes looks pretty strong. We know that smoking kills and that, without intervention, millions of smokers alive today will die of smoking-related illnesses. Despite being new to the market and lacking the long term research which can only come from an established product, e-cigarettes certainly seem significantly safer than their conventional cousins. Therefore, it is likely that making the switch from smoke to vapour is going to be pretty beneficial for your health.
This said, I don’t think we should be complacent with vaping and it certainly shouldn’t be marketed as ‘harmless’. It is important that legislations be formulated to standardise the mechanics of vaporisers and the content of e-liquids – particularly since studies have found products to vary widely in both their toxicity and nicotine delivery. Advertising must also be approached with caution. Critics of e-cigarettes have suggested that vaping may become a gateway for youngsters into smoking. Although there is currently no grounding to these fears, it is important that vaping is not glamorized in the media – it is not a harmless practice and should only be used by those already addicted to nicotine who want to improve their health by quitting smoking.
So, although we may have discovered smoke without fire there is no guarantee we won’t still get burned…
Post by: Sarah Fox
* Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) has estimated that currently about 1.3 million people in the UK use electronic cigarettes, and around 400,000 people have completely replaced smoking with electronic cigarettes (for link see here).