To celebrate world no tobacco day, we've taken a look at the science behind e-cigs and whether vaping is better for you than smoking.
Thought to contribute to almost six million deaths each year across the world and one in every five deaths in over-35s in the UK – the harmful effects of cigarettes are well known.
But could e-cigarettes offer a safe alternative for smokers or are they just trading one harmful vice for another? In this guide, we’ll look at the science behind vaping and give you the low down on the pros, cons and possible health risks.
How Does Vaping Work?
E-cigarettes are a common sight these days – you’re probably passing people on a daily basis enveloped in their own personal smog clouds. Almost three million adults in the UK thought to be using them currently and the number of users tripling since 2010.
The first e-cig was patented all the way back in 1963, but didn’t catch on, with the first modern devices only reaching mainstream markets in the mid-2000s. Early e-cigs were fairly limited and vapes have gone through a whirlwind of development as companies scrambled to meet the needs of demanding consumers.
The types of vaporisers we use these days work by converting liquid nicotine, along with chemicals like vegetable glycerine or polyethylene glycol and flavouring, into vapour, which is then inhaled by the user.
Turning the liquids into mist in this way doesn’t involve burning anything, which spares users from inhaling the harmful carcinogens that come from smoking conventional cigarettes (or burning pretty much anything).
Are e-Cigs Safer Than Traditional Cigarettes?
While there’s been a heated debate around the health risks of e-cigarettes, the bottom line is they’re currently thought to be much safer than conventional cigs. Let’s review some of the evidence.
A 2012 study found that while e-cigarette vapours did contain some toxic chemicals, these were up to hundreds of times lower than the amount packed into a conventional cigarette.
“Our findings are consistent with the idea that substituting tobacco cigarettes with e-cigarettes may substantially reduce exposure to selected tobacco-specific toxicants,” said the authors.
Similar findings were issued in a 2014 study that compared vapes and e-cigs in terms of their effects on their heart and found they had no immediate effects, as opposed to the well-documented and severe effects of regular cigarettes.
Research from 2012 contrasted second-hand smoke with vapor and found:
“For all by-products measured, electronic cigarettes produce very small exposures relative to tobacco cigarettes. The study indicates no apparent risk to human health from e-cigarette emissions based on the compounds analysed.”
Last year, Public Health England recommended they be prescribed on the NHS, stating that they were 95 per cent less harmful than smoking and most recently, the UK’s Royal College of Physicians spoke echoed these calls, suggesting that e-cigs be promoted widely as a substitute for smoking:
“E-cigarettes are likely to be beneficial to UK public health. Smokers can therefore be reassured and encouraged to use them, and the public can be reassured that e-cigarettes are much safer than smoking.”
Switching to eCigs: A No Brainer?
With all this promising evidence, you might think switching to e-cigs is a given, but due to their relatively short time on the market, there’s a lot of unknowns when it comes to vaping.
There’s no long-term studies on the effects of e-cigs, but given their rapidly growing popularity, we can expect a great deal of scrutiny in the coming years.
Since there’s little regulation in regard to what goes into e-cig liquids, how dangerous and damaging they are to cells can vary greatly. A 2012 study looked at 41 refills for vaporisers and found varying levels of cytotoxicity (how harmful a substance is to living cells) – ranging from non-toxic to highly toxic.
In 2014, another study found virtually identical performance between e-cigs and conventional fags in terms of the amount of harmful nitric oxide that was exhaled. And several other studies have found a range of harmful substances like formaldehyde, nickle and even lead in vapour.
A big question mark also hangs over the use of propylene glycol, which although certified as safe for use in food and cosmetics as a humidifying agent, comes with dire warnings in industrial settings, such as theatrical fog.
Similar concerns surround the use of diacetyl and the disease bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as ‘popcorn lung’. However, it’s worth noting that no cases of the condition have been attributed to e-cigs, plus diacetyl levels found in common vape juices are typically hundreds of times lower than the concentration of the chemical found in cigarettes.
Another alarming piece of research found that vaporisers might actually outpace conventional cigarettes when it comes to supressing the performance of immune genes.
“E-cig users showed the same changes in immune genes as cigarette smokers. However, e-cig users also demonstrated suppression of several additional immune genes, suggesting even broader suppressive effects on respiratory mucosal immune responses as compared to cigarette smokers,” said the study.
Despite all the above, however, only inferences and potential problems have been identified. Evidence to date still shows that although not totally without risks, e-cigs are much less harmful than their conventional counterparts.
Can They Help You Quit Smoking?
So we’ve established that e-cigs are – for now at least – thought to be safer, but are they a valid option for those looking to phase out smoking altogether?
Although not available on the NHS currently, they are listed as a potential resource for those looking to quit.
Evidence is still being accrued in this area, but the initial findings look promising. A 2014 longitudinal study found that vaping could help prevent former smokers from relapsing and aid current smokers in quitting.
A US survey found that 57% of 20,000 respondents who had used a product to help them quit smoking within the past year chose e-cigs, suggesting that they’re a popular option – if not definitively the most effective.
And a UK study in the journal Addiction surveyed 5,863 smokers who had attempted to quit – finding that e-cigs were associated with improved success rates.
While the ideal would be not to inhale anything – if you feel like you have to, or want to transition from smoking, e-cigs are probably a better alternative going by the currently-available evidence.
But if you’ve had experiences – good or bad – with e-cigs, or want to share your thoughts on the topic, leave us a comment below or get in touch via Facebook.
And if you’re looking for help quitting smoking or want advice on any lung-related issue, jump into our on-demand clinic and talk to a doctor right now:
World No Tobacco Day is an initiative by the World Health Organisation that aims to highlight the negative health effects of tobacco.