Is vaping a healthy alternative to smoking?
May 4th, 2016 by Holly Cornish
Smoking tobacco is a known health risk that kills an estimated six million people a year worldwide. The nicotine in tobacco is also incredibly addictive, as anyone who has tried to quit knows all too well.
Around 2007, a “safer” alternative hit the U.S. market, in which nicotine, water, a humectant (moisturizer) and liquid flavors are heated to release vapors that the user inhales.
“Vaping,” as it’s called, produces a shot of nicotine, simulates smoking cigarettes and has added flavors that make it more appealing to some users.
Manufacturers of “e-juice” and e-cigarettes claim there are few or no health risks associated with these products … plus, you can indulge indoors because the only by-product is water vapor. What’s not to love?
But is it all too good to be true? Is this actually safer than traditional ways to use tobacco?
Or are you better off going completely vapor-, smoke- and tobacco-free? Read on to find out…
Avoid Needless Joint Pain
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“Vaping” has been touted as a safer alternative to smoking tobacco mainly because these products don’t expose the user to the 7,000 chemicals present in tobacco smoke, including 69 carcinogens and toxins.1
But while there’s not a lot of research yet available on the long-term use of e-cigarettes, initial studies suggest these products are not altogether harmless.
Carcinogens still lurk in e-cigarettes
While the levels of toxic chemicals in e-cigarettes are much lower than tobacco, chemicals are still present, so inhaling still exposes your delicate tissues, organs, cells and immune system to toxic damage.2
One of these chemicals is formaldehyde, known to cause cancer in humans.3
A study published in 2015 in the New England Journal of Medicine reports that, when the humectants (a substance meant to keep things moist, like propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin or a combination of the two), are heated they degrade into formaldehyde-releasing agents.
The study found that more than 2% of the solvent had converted to these chemicals, bringing the concentration higher than the amount of nicotine in the vaporizer.
At this rate, they concluded the exposure to formaldehyde from long-term use of e-cigarettes created a cancer risk 5 to 15 times as high as long-term cigarette smoking.4
The e-cigarette industry refutes this claim, saying the study was faulty and the results “hyped up” because the researchers burned the liquid at a higher level than normal.5
The average voltage of an e-cigarette battery is 3.7 volts. The study found the formaldehyde-releasing agents at 5 volts. Variable voltage batteries are available for e-cigarettes up to 6 volts, so it’s not impossible that people are burning the liquid hotter than “normal.”
Regardless, formaldehyde isn’t the only toxic chemical lurking in e-cigarettes.
Other studies have shown that the artificial flavoring agents can cause health problems as well.
A 2014 study tested 51 flavors of e-cigarettes, including sweet flavors like fruit, candy and alcohol or “cocktail” flavors. The researchers found diacetyl in quantities up to 239 micrograms per e-cigarette in 39 flavors.
Diacetyl was used in butter flavoring agents in microwave popcorn until about ten years ago when it was discovered that inhaling this chemical causes bronchiolitis obliterans, an irreversible lung disease characterized by inflammation and obstruction in the lung’s smallest airways, causing symptoms similar to tobacco-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).6
I just hate irreversible lung diseases, especially ones named “obliterans.”
This deadly condition is also known as “popcorn lung,” named for the microwave popcorn factory workers that were first diagnosed with it.
The same study that found diacetyl in most of the flavoring agents tested also found acetyl propionyl in 23 of the flavors and acetoin, one of the additives in conventional cigarettes, in 46 flavors.7
Inhalation of acetyl propionyl has been shown to cause scarring on the tissue (fibrosis) of the esophagus in rats, and researchers believe it may also cause “popcorn lung” in humans.8
And yet another study found particles of metals such as tin, nickel, silver, iron and silicate in e-cigarette vapor in quantities greater than those found in conventional tobacco cigarettes.
Our sources say that inhaling these metal particles is known to cause respiratory distress and disease.9
Vaping weakens your immune system, causes cell damage
Not only can the chemicals and other unregulated junk in e-cigs cause respiratory diseases, but these alternative nicotine products have also been shown in animal studies to weaken immune systems, and to increase oxidative stress in cells as well as damage cells in ways that could lead to cancer.
A 2015 study looked at mice exposed to e-cig vapor in amounts relative to human smokers, determined by the comparable amount of cotinine concentrations, a biomarker for tobacco exposure, in their blood.
- E-cigarette vapor contains 700 billion free radicals per puff.
- Only two weeks of exposure to e-cigs produced a significant increase in oxidative stress and moderate macrophage-mediated inflammation (inflammation caused as the body’s reaction to infection).
- Mice exposed to e-cig vapor had decreased immune response, especially in their ability to clear bacteria and viruses from their lungs, thereby increasing risk of death from such infections.10
I think even these preliminary results make it clear: Vaping isn’t doing you any favors.
It invites cell damage and inflammation, which can lead to respiratory disease and quite possibly cancer. With that being said, some smokers may see vaping as a way to “ease out of” smoking.
Here’s what one study showed …
E-cigarettes as a (risky) way to quit smoking
Vaping may be helpful in weaning off cigarettes as a nicotine replacement therapy (NRT).
A 2014 study in England did find that, among smokers trying to quit, those who used an e-cigarette reported continued abstinence from tobacco more than those who either used a prescribed NRT or no aid at all.11
However, this study doesn’t indicate if the participants used the e-cigarettes as a bridge to a non-smoking, tobacco-free lifestyle, or if they simply traded one bad habit for another.
Though if the exploding growth of the industry is any indication — $2.87 billion in 2015, up from $1.7 billion in 2014 and just $20 million in 2008 — I’d put my money on “trading one bad habit for another.”12
Though a direct link between e-cigarettes and cancer has yet to be established, we know that cell damage and inflammation create an environment that cancer thrives in.
I think it’s safe to say quitting all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, is the best way to go.
If you’ve tried without success to quit nicotine, don’t give up! A life free of smoking (or vaping) is worth fighting for.