Is Vaping Safe?
There is no doubt that vaping has helped millions of smokers to quit what is undeniably a very unhealthy habit. Vaping certainly isn’t the only way to quit. But it has become increasingly apparent that for smokers who have previously found giving up next to impossible, vaping does offer a route to salvation.
This should be good news all round but nothing is ever that simple! Whilst more and more smokers are ditching their habit by vaping, and without feeling depressed, the media has been awash with scary headlines that cast doubt over the safety of vaping itself. A great deal of conflicting evidence has emerged, causing anxiety and confusion and leading people to ask "is vaping bad?".
So how safe is vaping? And how does it compare to smoking?
A New Innovation
Electronic cigarettes are a relatively new innovation and herein lies the problem. They are so new that the long-term effects of vaping are unknown. Indeed, they cannot be known. Many possible dangers have been highlighted but much of the scientific research is open to interpretation. One must also be aware that the tobacco industry has a vested interest in debunking vaping. If you look hard enough for a reason not to do something, you will generally find it.
But what do we actually know about vaping?
Smoking and Health
Perhaps a more important question to ask is what do we know about smoking? Because when it comes to smoking, there is no dispute about the dangers. The NHS says that half of all smokers will die prematurely as a result of their habit and that is very bad news indeed. Smoking negatively impacts the human body in every conceivable way.
When you smoke you release toxins into your bloodstream. These thicken the blood, making clots more likely. Your blood pressure and heart rate will rise which means that your heart is working overtime and your arteries will narrow. In short you are at a greater risk of a stroke or a cardiac event.
Stomach and Kidneys
Smoking also increases your risk of contracting stomach cancer. The toxins in the smoke weaken your internal muscles allowing stomach acid to travel back to your gullet. Smoking threatens your kidneys and the more you smoke the greater the risk.
The news isn’t any better when it comes to your bones. These will become weak and brittle which is particularly problematic for women as they are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis as they age, and this will weaken the bones further.
Smokers are far more likely to suffer a stroke than non-smokers and the strokes that afflict them are more likely to be fatal.
It will come as no surprise to hear that smokers’ lungs tend to be in really bad shape. Most smokers cough and wheeze and they tend to be prone to catching colds. Smoking can also lead to emphysema, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.
Mouth and Throat
In addition to bad teeth and gum disease, smoking also significantly raises the risk of contracting cancer of the lips, tongue, throat and oesophagus. The vast majority of cancers of this type are the result of smoking.
More Bad News
As if that litany of health problems isn’t enough, smoking also ages the skin, damages sperm, causes impotence and reduces female fertility.
What Happens When You Quit Smoking?
When it comes to your health, smoking is a complete disaster. The only chink of light at the end of a very dark tunnel is what happens when you quit. Any damage to facial skin and teeth is irreparable. However, your chances of succumbing to many of the other conditions and diseases caused by smoking begins to diminish as soon as you stop. If you can stay away from the fags, your chance of falling prey to most of the associated conditions will eventually return to that of a non-smoker.
The Public Health England Report 2015
It is imperative that smokers kick the habit and it has become obvious that vaping enables many people to do just that. In 2015, Public Health England carried out a review of vaping. The resulting report stated that there had been a steady rise in the use of electronic cigarettes and that there had been a corresponding decrease in smoking. This cannot be a coincidence.
The report went on to say that e-cigarettes had become the most popular aid to quitting smoking in the UK and that there was good evidence to suggest that the devices are effective. Public Health England also stated that they believed that vaping did not pose a risk of nicotine poisoning or of impacting the health of bystanders. Whilst the long term effects cannot be fully understood, Public Health England believed that vaping is 95% safer than smoking.
PUBLIC HEALTH ENGLAND
E-cigarettes are not completely risk free but when compared to smoking, evidence shows they carry just a fraction of the harm. The problem is people increasingly think they are at least as harmful and this may be keeping millions of smokers from quitting. Local stop smoking services should look to support e-cigarette users in their journey to quitting completely.
Professor Kevin Fenton
Director of Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England
Pursuant to these findings, the report recommended that 'stop smoking' services should actively help smokers to quit by using e-cigarettes, and that the devices should be made available by the NHS on prescription. The Medicines and Healthcare Product Regulatory Agency (MHRA) then awarded a prescription licence to British American Tobacco for its 'e-Voke' device. E-cigarettes became available on prescription in early 2016. This was a move which was supported by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).
The Potential Health Risks
The UK Government and the NHS are supporting vaping. Unfortunately, the authorities in many other countries are not so sanguine. Some have banned the importation of vaping devices. A number of scientists also remain sceptical.
E-cigarettes do not burn tobacco and so definitely do not deliver the carcinogens contained in tobacco and tar. However, there are some concerns surrounding the ingredients used in eliquids and the possibility of contaminants as these can generate toxicants. But some studies have shown that the toxins only appear to be produced at the levels found in the air that we breathe. It is certainly advisable to purchase branded eliquids from reliable sources as fake products may be significantly less safe when it comes to the ingredients used.
Research into Vaping and Health
There has been some research into the impact of vaping on health but more is clearly required. The conflicting results and diverse opinions of scientists only serve to demonstrate how little is really known.
Stiffness of the Aorta
Researchers at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Rome have found that vaping causes stiffness of the aorta. This can increase the risk of heart disease. But lead researcher Professor Charalambos Viachopoulos who is from the University of Athens has said that whilst he doesn’t believe that vaping is harmless, he does acknowledge that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes.
Research conducted by the University of San Diego in California involved the exposure of human cells to e-cigarette vapour for up to eight weeks. The cells developed pre-cancerous DNA damage and died prematurely. But when the same type of cells were exposed to cigarette smoke, they died in 24 hours! The results of this study were reported in the Journal of Oncology.
Researchers at the University of California found that vaping produces the same amount of the chemicals acrolein and acetaldehyde as conventional cigarettes. These substances are known irritants which can lead to breathing difficulties and lung damage. The findings featured in an article published in the journal Aerosol Science and Technology.
A study published in the journal Scientific Reports has suggested that the process of vaporizing eliquids produces the carcinogen benzene. Meanwhile experts at the U.S. Centres for Disease Control have warned that nicotine can impair the growth of the hippocampus in teenagers. This is the area of the brain which is associated with learning and memory. These scientists have also expressed concerns regarding the inhalation of food colourings.
Scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the US tested samples of vapour from 51 different e-cigarette flavours. They found diacetyl in 39 of these. Diacetyl has been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans. Though safe when eaten, it may be hazardous to inhale it over an extended period of time. The dangers of diacetyl have been known for some time and so many eliquids are now diacetyl free and are advertised as such.
Dr. Michael Siegel is a tobacco researcher and is Professor of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health. He has suggested that propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine may degrade into formaldehyde and acetaldehyde when heated. Both of these chemicals are considered to be carcinogens, although it is unclear exactly how they cause cancer.
The Immune System
A study at SoM Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science at the University of North Carolina found that vaping supresses genes related to the immune system. The study revealed that certain suppressed genes in vapers were not found in smokers which suggests that vaping can impact the body in an entirely different way to smoking.
On a brighter note, researchers in New Zealand have published a paper in which they suggest that vaping could aid weight loss and help to prevent obesity. Flavoured eliquids and the hand to mouth actions of vaping could help relieve food cravings and so stop people from overeating. In addition, smokers who quit unaided or who use nicotine patches do tend to gain weight. As vaping so closely mimics smoking, those who turn to vaping should be able to avoid piling on the pounds. As obesity is most definitely a health hazard, vaping potentially offers health benefits.
Interpreting the Available Information
So the current situation regarding the health implications of vaping is about as clear as mud! In fact, it is akin to the worst quagmire that you have ever had the misfortune to put your foot in. Public Health England believe that vaping is 95% safer than smoking. Many scientists around the world disagree but nobody really knows whose pocket any of these people are in.
Interpretation and Bias
Whatever potential risks there are, they must be measured against the dangers that we subject our bodies to every day, including smoking and breathing polluted air. If there are potentially hazardous chemicals in vapour, are these any worse than or present at higher levels than those found in the air that we breathe?
There have been some terribly troubling headlines regarding vaping safety. Health warnings make good copy. But you need to read between the lines as the research at the University of San Diego amply demonstrates. Remember that this study found that cells subjected to vapour over an eight-week period were negatively affected and died prematurely. That sounds truly disturbing until you read the small print which tells you that the cells exposed to cigarette smoke were not only damaged, they were dead after one day! All things are relative and subject to interpretation.
We live in a world in which we have choices and are exposed to temptation. We know that just about anything we do beyond eating a salad and grilled chicken is bad for us to one extent or another. Yet few people, if any, confine themselves to rabbit food and a glass of water for dinner. Miraculously, the life expectancy of human beings continues to rise.
Vaping is almost certainly a great deal safer than smoking but it is impossible to state with any accuracy how much safer. There is absolutely no evidence that vapers are starting to suffer from a litany of terrible diseases. Even if they were, as so many are reformed smokers, it would be impossible to know whether it was their old habit or their new one which had caused their problems!
Theorising about chemicals is one thing but where are the studies monitoring the health of smokers who have quit in favour of vaping? There do not appear to be any and yet these would be the acid test. But it is clear that reformed smokers are feeling a lot better after turning to vaping. Coughs and wheezing tend to disappear, respiratory function improves, pallid skin is revitalised. Vapers feel healthier and that would suggest that they are healthier.
How Safe is Vaping Equipment?
You have probably heard a few scary stories about electronic cigarettes exploding in people’s faces or batteries catching fire and burning houses down. Incidents like these do happen but they are rare and can be caused by any batteries not just those associated with vaping devices.
Vaping equipment is much safer now than it used to be and many of the accidents which have occurred were associated with counterfeit goods and mishandling of the batteries. Nonetheless, lithium batteries are concentrated sources of power which should be treated with respect.
Batteries should be stored in a protective box to prevent them from being knocked, dented or exposed to water. They must always be charged using the appropriate charger and never left unattended when charging. Batteries should not be exposed extreme temperatures (hot or cold). When carrying spare batteries with you, do not allow them to come into contact with metal objects. Batteries will not spontaneously combust unless the electrical circuit is completed by a conductor, i.e. the metal. Completing the circuit could short the battery.
If you look after your batteries, they will be safe to use.
Nicotine is toxic and so eliquids containing nicotine should be kept sealed and out of the reach of children and pets. This also applies to the cartomizers for cig-a-likes which dogs have been known to eat.
- Mods, Coils and Sub-Ohm Vaping
You should not attempt to build your own coils or to use a mechanical mod for sub-ohm vaping unless you have a good understanding of ohms law. If you don’t know what you are doing with this type of equipment, it can indeed be dangerous.
A variable voltage/variable wattage mod or a temperature control mod will have the safety features you need built-in. These include thermal protection to prevent the device from overheating, over charge protection and resistance protection to stop you from firing an atomiser with coils that have a resistance which is too high or too low. You will also benefit from short circuit protection to prevent the device from firing if there is a short circuit and reverse polarity protection to save you and the device from problems arising from incorrectly installed batteries.
The Bottom Line
If you vape using up to date equipment purchased from a reliable supplier, take care of your batteries and avoid mods and coils that you do not understand, vaping equipment is extremely safe. Don’t take risks by investing in cheap devices from suppliers that you do not trust!
Only you can decide what is right for you and what you consider to be an acceptable risk. Vaping is almost certainly a great deal safer than smoking. We don’t yet know how much safer. But smoking is so destructive, antisocial and hazardous to those around us that vaping just has to be a better choice. There is as yet no evidence that vapers are any more likely to fall prey to disease than the rest of the population. That evidence may emerge in the future or it may never come. If you carry on smoking, you probably won’t live long enough to find out.
- Health implications of smoking
- Public Health England report
- University of San Diego research
- European Society of Cardiology Congress in Rome
- University of California research
- Benzene in e-cigs
- US Centre of Disease Control re. hippocampus
- Ex smokers feel health improves when they switch to vaping
- Dr Michael Siegal
- A study at SoM Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science at the University of North Carolina
- Weight loss