Experts from around the world have concluded that e-cigarettes are no safer than smoking normal cigarettes. Their findings come after tests showed alarming results in which the vapour from e-cigarettes causes damage to actual human DNA. This could then lead onto cancer.
These tests were carried out by scientists at the University of California. They exposed human cells to the vapour from e-cigarettes in a lab. The cells subsequently developed DNA damage and expired much faster than if they had been left unexposed.
The vapour that contained no nicotine caused 50 per cent more DNA strand breaks, however, vapour with nicotine caused a threefold increase in damage over eight weeks.
Prof Jessica Wang-Rodriquez, professor of pathology at the University of California, San Diego, who led the study said:
“Based on the evidence to date I believe they are no better than smoking regular cigarettes. There haven’t been many good lab studies on the effects of these products on actual human cells,” said Dr Wang-Rodriquez.
“Our study strongly suggests that electronic cigarettes are not as safe as their marketing makes them appear to the public.
“We were able to identify that e-cigarettes on the whole have something to do with increased cell death. We hope to identify the individual components that are contributing to the effect.”
In the UK the message about vaping and e-cigarettes has been mixed, with public health officials urging smokers to switch to vaping earlier this year. This was to help hardened smokers who were finding it difficult to give up smoking, as it was believed that vaping was safer. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) are now sceptical about their safety.
WHO looked at the San Diego study in an attempt to further understand the complexities surrounding e-cigarettes.
“There have been many studies showing that nicotine can damage cells,” added Prof Wang-Rodriguez, who specialises in head and neck cancers.
“But we found that other variables can do damage as well. It’s not that the nicotine is completely innocent in the mix, but it looks like the amount of nicotine that the cells are exposed to by e-cigarettes is not sufficient by itself to cause these changes.
“There must be other components in the e-cigarettes that are doing this damage. So we may be identifying other carcinogenic components that are previously undescribed.”
Speaking of other carcinogenic substances, many e-cigarettes contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, and diacetyl. The former is known to be carcinogenic but diacetyl has been linked to a lung disease called popcorn lung that affects factory workers.
This chemical is used to create a fake butter taste and is deemed safe to eat, having previously been added to microwave popcorn. But when workers in the popcorn factories started coming down with a nasty lung disease, concerns about inhaling the chemical were heightened.
And herein lies the problem. There are not many tests that has concentrated on actually inhaling the vapour from e-cigarettes. All attention has been on switching from normal smoking in an effort to get people to quit.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of health charity ASH said it was clear the e-cigarettes were not ‘risk free.’
“What this research doesn’t do is compare the impact of electronic cigarette vapour with that of tobacco smoke, which we know is far more toxic to cells than vapour.” she said.
“Concerns do remain as to the long-term health impact of e-cigarettes and while there is no evidence to suggest that they pose anywhere near the same dangers as smoking, we must continue to monitor this area carefully,” said Penny Woods, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation.
“In the meantime, we do advise that anyone using e-cigarettes to quit smoking should do so with a view to eventually quitting them too.”
“Electronic cigarettes are a much safer alternative source of nicotine for smokers than cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean they are risk free and we would discourage anyone who’s not a smoker from using them.”
However, despite all the new evidence, experts are still saying that compared to smoking, e-cigarettes carry less risk and are helpful if people are trying to quit for good.
Professor Peter Hajek, Queen Mary University London and independent author of the review said:
“My reading of the evidence is that smokers who switch to vaping remove almost all the risks smoking poses to their health. Smokers differ in their needs and I would advise them not to give up on e-cigarettes if they do not like the first one they try.”
Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s expert in cancer prevention, said:
“All of our local NHS Stop Smoking Services now proactively welcome anyone who wants to use these devices as part of their quit attempt and increase their chance of success.”
However other experts disagree and state that based on the evidence to date they believe ‘they are no better than smoking regular cigarettes.’
There are at present approximately 500 brands of e-cigarettes on the market with around 7,000 flavours to choose from.