Are E-cigarettes and Vaping Harmful?
Monday, March 2 2015 Kira Lesley
With use of e-cigarettes and vaping on the rise, many people are beginning to wonder, just how safe are e-cigarettes and vaping? I recently attended a lecture by three professors at Portland State University that addressed the science of e-cigarettes. The neuroscience presented was complex but at least one point was clear--vaping and other forms of electronic nicotine delivery are not harmless.
The Harm of E-Cigarettes: Nicotine is Addictive
This may be old news, but it shouldn't be overlooked. Nicotine is a highly-addictive drug. Some people believe that using "pure" nicotine (which does not exist) should be safe because after all, isn't it the tar and arsenic and all that other bad stuff in cigarettes that causes cancer? No doubt tar and arsenic are poisonous, but nicotine by itself may not be innocuous. Scientists have identified many of nicotine's health effects. Nicotine use leads to increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and pregnancy complications. In addition, the buzz that smoking produces is followed by a crash and symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.
According to Dr. Bill Griesar at Portland State, nicotine is an interesting drug because it works on both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Both systems are part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls many of our bodies' unconscious activities. But while the sympathetic nervous system readies our body for action (increased heart rate, decreased saliva, decreased digestion, etc.) the parasympathetic system puts our body in rest mode (increased digestion, slower heart rate, etc.). Nicotine acts on both of these systems, which is why it is classified as a stimulant but has relaxing properties.
E-cigs and Vape Pens Contain Harmful Toxins
David Peyton, Professor of Chemistry, conducted experiments in his lab using electromagnetic resonance on e-liquid, the liquid that goes in e-cigarettes or vape pens. His research shows that in the process of vaping, a chemical reaction occurs. This means that the act of vaping does not merely deliver a flavored nicotine liquid, it changes the liquid's chemical composition. This doesn't have to be a problem, but it can be if the reactions taking place create toxins. One of the toxins released in the act of vaping is formaldehyde. A 2014 study found that traditional cigarettes contained nine times more formaldehyde than e-cigarettes. Consuming less of a toxic substance is obviously preferable to consuming more of it. However, it's important to realize that e-cigarettes are not as pure and clean as some proponents suggest.
Furthermore, e-cigarette vapor (which some argue is actually aerosol particles, not vapor) may be hazardous to your health. Formaldehyde has been linked with cancer, and in a recent study at Johns Hopkins University, researchers found that mice who had been exposed to e-cigarette vapor had a slower recovery time and higher morbidity rates from pneumonia than non-exposed mice. Unfortunately, the researchers did not compare mice exposed to traditional cigarette smoke in this study.
E-Cigarettes and Vaping May Be Less Harmful than Traditional Cigarettes
As Dr. Peyton pointed out, scientists and interest groups are still debating the effects of traditional cigarettes, and those have been around many decades. By comparison, research on e-cigarettes is in its infancy. Still, the professors mentioned that e-cigs and vaping may have fewer harmful effects on one's health. Research is mixed on whether or not they help smokers quit traditional cigarettes and how they compare to nicotine replacement therapy, patches and gums.
The limited information we currently have about vaping and e-cigarettes suggests the practice may be less harmful to the body than tobacco cigarette smoking. But there is much information yet to be discovered. Vaping may cause less harm than smoking, but quitting nicotine products altogether is the safest choice.