Are e-Cigarettes and vaping safer?

09 February 2017


A decade ago e-cigarettes were a pipe-dream. Now they're mainstream, and usage is rising fast. But are they safer than their combustible counterparts, and could they be attracting new legions of smokers?

This week two independent studies have attempted to probe these possibilities. Based at UCL, Lion Shahab compared the chemical profiles of saliva urine and breath samples from just under 200 current smokers and "non-smokers", who were by then either exclusive e-cigarette or nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) users.

The average age of the participants was 37 years and the "non-smokers" were required to have quit more than 6 months before the study commenced. Across the three groups, nicotine levels were broadly similar, showing equivalent levels of nicotine product intake. But compared with current smokers, who had abstained for an hour before the tests were conducted, samples from the e-cigarette and NRT users contained 97% lower levels of chemicals like N-nitrosamines and carbonyls, which are known to cause cancer.

Commenting on the results, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, Shahab affirms "this would greatly reduce their risk."

So substituting e-cigarettes for combustible tobacco products seems like a safer option, but not all physicians regard e-cigarettes so positively. In a separate study this week, published in the journal Tobacco Control, the University of Michigan's Richard Miech believes that e-cigarettes might be a yawning gateway that's threatening to turn a new generation of teens into smokers, ironically at a time when smoking rates have hit an international all time low.

Miech has been surveying hundreds of school children and then following them up a year later to discover how many are "vaping", if this is linked to a subsequent smoking habit, and whether vaping alters the perceived health risk of smoking.

"In 2011, 1% of school kids vaped," says Miech. "By 2015, it was 16% of year 12 students. It's exploding."

But how many of those then embraced cigarettes for real? Follow up at 12 months showed that only 7% of those who had not vaped had smoked. But among recent vapers that number was 31%.

"Kids were 4 times more likely to have smoked a cigarette in the following year if they had been vaping," warns Miech.


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