With taste-tempting flavors like mint chocolate, strawberry cheesecake, apple pie, and piña colada, it may be hard to believe that the sweet-scented smoke coming from an electronic cigarette is as harmful to your health as smoking an actual tobacco cigarette—but new research shows that it can be.
For some background: e-cigarettes are battery-powered cigarettes with a flavored liquid nicotine solution stored in a cartridge. Puffing an e-cigarette, also known as vaping, activates a battery that in turn heats the flavored liquid. The flavored nicotine liquid is heated in the device and turned into a vapor, which is inhaled.
Most e-cigarettes are manufactured in China, the epicenter of the vaping trend. Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik patented the first nicotine-based e-cigarette in 2003 and was also the first person to manufacture and sell the product. Since then, e-cigarettes have become a worldwide billion-dollar business.
Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University’s School of Public Health (whose primary research is in tobacco control, secondhand smoke’s health effects, and tobacco control policies), sheds light on how health experts view vaping.
“I don’t think vaping is absolutely safe—but it’s safer than cigarette smoke,” he says. However, he warns, “electronic cigarettes contain nicotine, which is hazardous for anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding. In addition, nicotine is a cardiovascular stimulant and could have adverse effects on blood pressure.”
Moreover, a study from plosone.org, a peer-reviewed online publication on medicine and health sciences, found that e-cigarette vapor contained metal and silicate participles, which can cause problems with breathing. Siegel adds that e-cigarettes also contain propylene glycol, a mild respiratory irritant, and some brands of e-cigarettes even contain low levels of formaldehyde—the highly toxic chemical commonly found in household products, glues, and more that can cause cancer under prolonged exposure.
That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to switching over from traditional cigarettes. Because e-cigarettes do not burn tobacco, they do produce fewer chemicals found in conventional tobacco smoke. In this sense, vaping is considerably safer than typical smoking, and Siegel agrees that someone who switches from cigarettes to e-cigarettes is greatly reducing his or her risk for disease and death.
For someone who is trying to quit smoking, using e-cigarettes may be a good way to gradually break the addiction. Though the best end goal would be to quit altogether, a switch is a great step in the right direction. “Just because the person is still using nicotine does not negate the tremendous value of their having quit [cigarette] smoking,” Siegel says. There is also currently no evidence that suggests that secondhand vaping poses any significant hazard to health—so vaping could also be better for nearby nonsmokers.
Still, some argue that vaping simply means replacing one bad habit with another. A study published in the journal “Addictive Behaviors” shows that smokers who used e-cigarettes in hopes of quitting smoking either became hooked to vaping or went back to smoking cigarettes.
The evidence is still foggy on whether vaping is truly safer; the Food and Drug Administration is still very new to regulating tobacco products, and studies on vaping, also relatively new, will take some time to develop with the current evidence and complex issues involved. Namely, there are hundreds of e-cigarette companies that use various ingredients and provide different levels of nicotine in their products, making it difficult to conduct comprehensive studies and come to across-the-board conclusions.
In the meantime, perhaps the logical step would be to hold e-cigarette manufacturers responsible for not downplaying the risks of vaping, as many do.
As Siegel says, “It’s not clear to me that providing a list of chemicals in the vapor would mean anything to consumers. However, I do believe that e-cigarette marketers should make it clear that these products are not absolutely safe and that they are reducing, rather than completely eliminating, the risks associated with tobacco products.”
Illustration by Ubin Li