With the extensive health risks of smoking exposed, more and more people are looking for a safer alternative to cigarettes. In recent years, e-cigs have become an increasingly popular way for people to enjoy nicotine in a seemingly safe manner - but do people really know what they are subjecting their health to when they vape? Last year alone $1.7 billion worldwide was spent on e-cig related products, and with predictions that e-cigs will out-sell cigarettes in as little as 4 years, it’s about time we knew the truth about any associated health problems.
With the popularisation of e-cigs, it is easy to think that they must be safe. After all, in England you can use them in public places, on many aeroplanes and even in restaurants. It is widely accepted that, puff-for-puff, a cigarette is much worse for your health than an e-cig. This is mainly because e-cigs do not contain the 40,000 chemicals found in cigarette smoke, which include; arsenic, the industrial pesticide hydrogen cyanide and even acrolein, which was used as a chemical weapon in World War One!
Unfortunately, this does not mean that there are no damaging chemicals in e-cigs. The US Food and Drug Administration have found that they still contain many carcinogens (cancer causing substances) and suspected carcinogens, such as nitrosamines. However, the amount of these chemicals is only one thousandth of that in one cigarette. Worryingly, there have also been reports that e-cigs can contain traces of the toxin diethylene glycol, a highly poisonous component of antifreeze, although this has been disputed.
Using an e-cig also exposes you to high doses of nanoparticles; small molecules just 200 to 300 nanometres, or two-thousandths of a millimetre, in diameter. This is cause for concern as there is potential for these particles to travel into your lungs where they can fit perfectly into the lungs smallest airways, restricting oxygen intake as well as triggering inflammation of the lungs or asthma. It can be argued that this is much less of a risk than coating the inside of your lungs with tar, as smoking a conventional cigarette does, but it’s important to note that it is still a risk.
There are concerns that the vapour from e-cigs can be harmful for people standing nearby, much like second-hand smoke from cigarettes leading to passive smoking. This has arisen from the realisation that propylene glycol is used to suspend the nicotine in the liquid. A trial on a group of 40 people in 2012 showed that propylene glycol has mild side effects, including a dry cough and an irritated throat, therefore guiding some people to the conclusion that the vapour is harmful. Because of this ingredient, the World Health Organisation has recommended that they should be banned in any indoor public place. In contrast to this, the charitable organisation Action on Smoking and Health, has commented, "There is little evidence of harmful effects from repeated exposure to propylene glycol, the chemical in which nicotine is suspended". It is also worth noting that propylene glycol is present in smoke machines, hand creams, toothpastes and even in cake!
There have also been studies to show that e-cig use could make bacterial infections resistant to some antibiotics. For example, methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which have been exposed to nicotine rich vapours, develop a much thicker protective coating compared to non-exposed MRSA. This makes the MRSA much harder for the body to fight and kill, leading to a threefold increase in MRSA growth rate when nicotine vapours are involved.
A large social argument against e-cigs is that they might encourage more young people to take up the habit. Last year in the UK, around 10% of secondary school pupils had tried an e-cig. This could be that they are far more easily accessible than cigarettes as they can be bought in newsagents and market stalls. They could also be far more attractive to teens, with hundreds of different designs, colours and flavours.
It is important to remember that e-cigs can still contain nicotine, which has been linked to anxiety and the development of some blood vessel diseases. Concerns have been raised that each drag of an e-cig contains different amounts of nicotine and if you include the fact that the nicotine levels are not regulated, you can never be sure of exactly how much nicotine you are inhaling.
E-cigs have only been around since 2003, and only really popularised in the last six years or so. One of the main problems when looking at possible health risks is that because e-cigs are so new, there simply haven’t been any studies done on a large enough population over a decent time scale to truly prove very much. E-cigs are also not currently regulated by an external body, such as the World Health Organisation, leading to concern over what ingredients could potentially be included, although the UK government aims to regulate e-cigs containing more than 20mg nicotine by 2016. This uncertainty has led to fierce debates and disagreements between regulating bodies, health professionals and politicians alike.
The transition to e-cigs has provided hundreds of thousands of people worldwide with the means of quitting smoking and although they do have associated health risks, such as carcinogenic properties and nanoparticle exposure, the use of them in the short term to wean oneself off nicotine should be applauded and encouraged. The problem here lies when people indefinitely take up e-cigs instead of cigarettes, or begin to use e-cigs when they would never dream of smoking. It is important to understand that although e-cigs are found to be much safer than cigarettes, they still have the potential to cause harm, and taking up the habit should still be carefully considered by everyone.