Vaping should not be assumed to be totally safe, as the cigarette-substitute may actually cause inflammation of the lung cells and impair the organ’s ability to get rid of dust and bacteria, finds a new study.
Scientists have warned that viewing the electronic cigarette as a solution to the problems caused by smoking is short-sighted, and it should instead be treated with caution.
Some of the effects of vaping are similar to those seen in cigarette smokers and people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), they said.
Public Health England (PHE) has told smokers that vaping is a preferable habit because it “poses only a small fraction of the risks” and switching completely from smoking to vaping conveys “substantial health benefits”.
But the new study, published in journal Thorax, has suggested that it is not all good news and that chemical vapour may cause inflammation and impair the activity of alveolar macrophages, cells which remove potentially damaging dust particles, bacteria and allergens.
Professor David Thickett, lead author from the University of Birmingham, said: “I don’t believe e-cigarettes are more harmful than ordinary cigarettes.
“In terms of cancer causing molecules in cigarette smoke, as opposed to cigarette vapour, there are certainly reduced numbers of carcinogens. They are safer in terms of cancer risk, but if you vape for 20 or 30 years and this can cause COPD, then that’s something we need to know about.
“But we should have a cautious scepticism that they are as safe as we are being led to believe.”
Professor John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham, said this is a particularly poignant finding for those who plan on using e-cigarettes long term, rather than as a transitional stage to quit entirely.
Britton said: “This indicates that long-term use of electronic cigarettes is likely to have adverse effects, as is widely recognised by leading health authorities in the UK including the Royal College of Physicians and Public Health England.
“However, since electronic cigarettes are used almost exclusively in the UK by current or former smokers, the key question is how this adverse effect compares with that of exposure to cigarette smoke.
“The harsh truth is that smoking kills, and smokers who switch completely to electronic cigarettes are likely to substantially reduce the likelihood of premature death and disability.”
The harsh truth is that smoking kills...' John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies
Previous studies have focused on the chemical make-up of e-cigarette liquid before it is vaped, the researchers said.
However, they developed a procedure to mimic vaping in the laboratory, testing the effect of e-cigarette vapour condensate on alveolar macrophages extracted from the lung tissue samples of eight non-smokers.
The condensate was found to be more harmful to the cells than plain e-cigarette fluid, and the effects worsened as the “dose” was increased.
The researchers said further work is needed to fully understand the effects of vapour exposure in humans, but added: “We suggest continued caution against the widely held opinion that e-cigarettes are safe.”