WITH 13 reported deaths, hundreds of new cases of a mysterious lung disease that has spurred congressional hearings in the US, the question now for many who enjoy vape pens and other e-cigarettes is how safe are they?
Many people turn to electronic cigarettes as a way to ease the transition from traditional cigarettes to not smoking at all. But is smoking e-cigarettes (also called vaping) better than using tobacco products in light of recent reports?
According to Dr Nevein Girgis, a local oncologist, while vaporised nicotine avoids many of the cancer-causing chemicals found in conventional tobacco products, the long-term effects have not been studied.
“E-cigarettes have been shown to help adults quit smoking, but a growing body of evidence suggests that e-cigarettes may be plenty harmful on their own. A recent study from Birmingham University indicates that users could be putting themselves at risk for developing lung disease. That’s because the nicotine-infused liquids used in e-cigarettes become much more toxic when vaporised, adversely affecting our immune system’s ability to clear our lungs and prevent harmful chemical buildups,” she said.
“A study carried out at the New York University School of Medicine has shown that when compared to mice that breathed filtered air, mice exposed to e-cigarette vapour experienced DNA damage in their lungs, bladder, and heart – which raises their risk of developing cancer and heart disease.”
Dr Girgis said human lung and bladder cells that were exposed to an equivalent of ten years showed the same damage, suggesting that long-term exposure to e-cigarettes could directly contribute to the two leading causes of death in the US.
“According to a recent article published in Science News magazine, significant amounts of cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde are absorbed by the respiratory tract during a typical vaping session, underscoring the potential health risks posed by vaping,” she said.
The US Surgeon General has described teen use of e-cigarettes as an “epidemic” and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than one in five middle and high school teens use them.
For the past few years regulators have been trying to stop manufacturers from marketing them to children.
“There are three reasons e-cigarettes may be particularly enticing to young people. First, many teens believe that vaping is less harmful than smoking. Second, e-cigarettes have a lower per-use cost than traditional cigarettes. Finally, vape cartridges are often formulated with flavourings such as apple pie and watermelon that appeal to younger users,” said Dr Girgis.
In September, the CDC activated its Emergency Operations Center to investigate hundreds of severe lung illnesses and several deaths related to vaping. There were at least 11 confirmed fatalities caused by vaping. Over 500 people have developed a new and devastating lung disease resembling pneumonia.
“The new lung disease caused by vaping is very real and very dangerous,” said Dr Girgis. “The symptoms of the new scourge tend to worsen over time and include coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Doctors have recommended that anyone who suffer breathing problems like dry cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain after vaping should seek medical attention immediately.”
Until now, vaping had been seen as the best way to help with smoking cessation. Opponents worried that teen vaping would eventually lead to cigarette use, but very few had genuine concerns about product safety.
“But the curtain has been lifted,” said Dr Girgis.
“Some would blame tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects often used in vape products, but that theory has already been debunked. Many of the victims of this new disease were not using THC products. Even nicotine, which has been thoroughly villainised, is not to blame. What you smoke is not the problem; something is wrong with your vape pen.
She added: “A recent study found that most people who intended to use e-cigarettes to kick the nicotine habit ended up continuing to smoke both traditional and e-cigarettes. Both e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes contain nicotine, which research suggests may be as addictive as heroin and cocaine. What’s worse, many e-cigarette users get even more nicotine than they would from a tobacco product.”