By Roberta Attanasio
A few months ago, Oxford Dictionaries announced “vape” as its international Word of the Year 2014 – language research conducted by their editors revealed that its use in 2014 had more than doubled compared to 2013 (and increased by 30-fold since 2012), mostly because of the rapidly growing popularity of electronic cigarettes and the expanding debate over their safety. Although e-cigarettes are portrayed as devices that can help adult smokers quit while providing a safe alternative to tobacco smoking, mounting evidence shows that these devices may cause considerable harm. Indeed, about two weeks ago, California health officials said that e-cigarettes represent a rising public-health risk that threaten to unravel progress made on tobacco by “re-normalizing smoking behavior” and luring a new generation into nicotine addiction.
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are tobacco-free and vaporize liquid (also called e-liquid or e-juice) that contains nicotine, producing “faux” smoke or vapor. Because they don’t burn anything, e-cigarettes don’t release any smoke – therefore, users don’t “smoke”, they “vape.” In addition to nicotine, the e-juice typically contains vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, and flavorings. There are several types of e-juices, each containing different flavorings – these flavorings make “vaping” especially appealing to young smokers who would not normally try tobacco.
While nicotine addiction caused by vaping in young smokers is clearly a major public health issue, there are also public health concerns associated with toxic substances released by e-cigarette vapors. Indeed, e-cigarettes may likely become a toxic replacement for tobacco products. Results from a recent study (published in the scientific journal PLOSone) show that emissions from e-cigarettes damage lung cells. The damage is mostly caused by inflammatory responses and oxidative stress, which are known to represent key events in the development of chronic airway diseases. Some flavored e-juices – particularly those containing cinnamon – are more toxic than others. Irfan Rahman, lead author of the study, said in a press release: “Several leading medical groups, organizations, and scientists are concerned about the lack of restrictions and regulations for e-cigarettes. Our research affirms that e-cigarettes may pose significant health risks and should be investigated further. It seems that every day a new e-cigarette product is launched without knowing the harmful health effects of these products.”
Results from an additional study recently published in the same journal confirm that vaping may cause potential deleterious health effects. Using a mouse model, the researchers showed that e-cigarettes compromise the immune system in the lungs and generate some of the same potentially dangerous chemicals found in traditional nicotine cigarettes. Thomas Sussan, lead author of this study, said in a press release: “E-cigarette vapor alone produced mild effects on the lungs, including inflammation and protein damage. However, when this exposure was followed by a bacterial or viral infection, the harmful effects of e-cigarette exposure became even more pronounced. The e-cigarette exposure inhibited the ability of mice to clear the bacteria from their lungs, and the viral infection led to increased weight loss and death indicative of an impaired immune response.”
The World Health Organization, the US Food and Drug Administration and regulatory agencies throughout the world are developing new rules extending regulatory authority from cigarettes to e-cigarettes. Will the results from these new studies help in developing these long-awaited new regulations or at least interim safety guidelines?