Image credit: Pexels
If you’re thinking of stopping smoking, then you might have thought about switching to vaping instead. After all, it seems like a logical substitute — it’s a smooth transition away from smoking, while still being similar enough that it’s satisfying when you’re craving a cigarette. Plus, e-cigarettes are much safer than real ones, right?
Well, mostly. While on the whole, vaping is less harmful than smoking real cigarettes, it still carries potential dangers — including an increased risk factor for respiratory disease.
In this post, we’ll be taking a closer look at vaping, and asking why vaping is still a risk factor for respiratory disease.
What exactly is vaping and how does it work?
When people are talking about ‘vaping’, they are referring to electronic cigarettes — also known as e-cigarettes, vapes or vape pens. There are various other types of vaping devices too, including e-pipes and e-cigars.
Unlike normal cigarettes, e-cigarettes don’t use or burn tobacco. These electronic devices deliver nicotine in the form of water vapour, which is created when the liquid solution inside is heated up via an atomizer (which you do by clicking a button).
The idea is that the user can inhale nicotine as a water vapour rather than as smoke. This makes e-cigarettes less dangerous because they don’t contain tar or carbon monoxide, which are two of the most harmful ingredients in normal cigarette smoke.
Why is vaping better than smoking?
Generally speaking, vaping is much less harmful and dangerous than smoking.
A long term study funded by Cancer Research UK and published in Annals of Internal Medicine in February 2017 confirms that e-cigarettes are less toxic and safer to use than conventional smoking.
Researchers assessed breath, saliva and urine samples from smokers and long-term e-cigarette users to check for levels of toxic and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals. The study found that participants who used tobacco alternatives such as e-cigarettes had much lower levels of these toxic substances, which essentially equals a much lower risk of diseases like cancer.
This is alongside multiple other studies that have estimated that wide-scale movement from smoking to vaping may save millions of lives because of the reduction of smoking-related diseases and problems.
There are financial benefits to vaping instead of smoking as well; vaping is much cheaper than smoking if you use a reusable e-cigarette. Life insurance for smokers can go down if you change to vaping too, but it does depend on the insurance company, according to Zurich.
Why vaping is still a risk factor
Although vaping is (at least currently thought to be) better than smoking conventional cigarettes, it is still not completely risk-free.
When vaping devices first appeared on the market, they were generally perceived as a completely safe alternative to smoking. However, new research (from various studies) suggests that vaping is potentially hazardous to the health of users, and is still a risk factor for respiratory disease:
Toxic chemicals & particles linked to lung disease
Although e-cigarettes and other vaping devices don’t contain tar or carbon monoxide (which is why they are generally considered safe), the e-liquid used does contain all sorts of different chemicals.
These will vary depending on the vaping device, but may include cancer-causing substances, toxic chemicals and toxic metal nanoparticles.
We’re currently unaware of exactly how these substances will affect long-term physical health. However, new research suggests that e-cigarettes can be linked to respiratory disease.
A recent study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that users of vaping devices were more likely to develop lung illnesses and diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, asthma or emphysema. This is thought to be due to repeated exposure to the chemicals and particles found in e-cigarettes and other vaping devices.
The study followed e-cigarette users for three years and came to the conclusion that they had a risk of developing respiratory disease that was 1.3 times higher than those who did not use any tobacco product. Smoking e-cigarettes was also linked to exacerbations of the disease and a faster decline in health.
Some chemicals may impair cell function and defence
Extra substances are added to e-liquids to create different flavours such as diacetyl (for a buttery taste) and cinnamaldehyde (for cinnamon).
The worrying thing is that we don’t know much about how these chemicals will react when mixed together or when they react with propylene glycol, the main ingredient in many vape liquids — potentially creating more (potentially dangerous) substances. And, at the moment, there isn’t enough research to suggest that they are safe to inhale (as opposed to eating).
For example, some new research suggests that cinnamaldehyde (a cinnamon flavouring compound) can harm the cells in lungs, according to The New York Times.
Cinnamaldehyde is widely used to flavour e-cigarettes but has been found to disrupt function and the innate defence system when tested on human lung cells in a laboratory culture.
In particular, the cells’ cilia (protective hair-like projections which keep the lungs clear of mucus, dirt, and pathogens) are damaged by e-liquid, which makes the lungs more vulnerable to infections and respiratory diseases.
Vaping can increase inflammation in the lungs
Vaping is also thought to increase inflammation of cells in the lungs, which can cause all sorts of respiratory problems, and trigger pre-existing asthma symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, trouble breathing and chest tightness.
This is believed to be connected to propylene glycol, the main ingredient in many vape liquids, as well as the many other unknown chemicals that users inhale when they vape.
Inflammation from prolonged smoking is strongly linked to infections, lung cancer and other respiratory disease development, which is why the impact of vaping on such inflammation is so concerning — and needs to be investigated more.
Overall, vaping may be safer than smoking conventional cigarettes. However, that isn’t the same as being safe; vaping is still a risk factor for respiratory disease and other lung problems. Much more research needs to be done into the impact of vaping on our respiratory health and general health, and just how unsafe e-cigarettes are — until then, it can’t be assumed that vaping is risk-free.