Despite being marketed as cooler and healthier alternatives to smoking, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that e-cigarettes should come with similar health warnings as regular tobacco products. Yet, while further research is needed to determine once and for all whether e-cigarettes represent a serious public health challenge, states and cities around the world are not waiting to restrict their use.
On September 12, Kansas became the latest US state to record a death from lung disease related to e-cigarettes. The woman, who was in her 50s and had a history of health problems, joins a set of statistics that make for grim reading. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 400 possible cases of lung illnesses associated with e-cigarettes have been reported across the United States since the start of 2019.
The woman’s death helps to strengthen the case for an outright ban of e-cigarettes and related products. However, a couple of formidable obstacles remain in front of campaigners: incomplete scientific evidence and misconceptions regarding usage and health benefits.
While the rise in popularity of e-cigarettes and their general acceptance are relatively recent phenomena, studies are starting to establish their harmful effects on users and those around them. Evidence is mounting, for example, that e-cigarettes raise exposure to several toxic chemicals and metals which increase the risk of cardiovascular, neurological and respiratory diseases along with severe short and long-term health complications. Many toxins and substances found in e-cigarettes, like chromium and nickel, are also established inhalation carcinogens that may cause cancer.
Heavy metals found in e-cigarettes come in the form of nanoparticles that can penetrate deep into a vaper’s lungs and damage the alveolar sacs. Moreover, these nanoparticles can be transported to other vital organs including the heart, brain, kidneys and the liver, and may cause inflammation and serious cell damage. The presence of metals like lead, which is not easily excreted from the body and can have detrimental health effects at trace amounts, is highly concerning. While e-cigarettes contain less nicotine than traditional cigarettes and are increasingly being used as smoking cessation aids, research suggests that their vapor contains more concentration of hazardous metals putting the health of its users at greater risk.
Back in the early 1900s, scientific and medical research had not yet established a strong causal relationship between smoking and deadly diseases such as throat and lung cancer. While there was a surge in worldwide apprehension about the dangers of smoking cigarettes, a lack of substantial research gave the tobacco industry an opportunity to exploit the situation and rope in athletes, physicians, researchers and celebrities to advertise and promote their products.
Fast forward to today, and we are again confronted with a similar situation with the rising use of e-cigarettes and vaping products. Advertisements market e-cigarettes as an effective smoking cessation aid and healthy alternative to traditional cigarettes which can even help replenish vitamin deficiencies. Another similarity is seen in how smoking cigarettes was promoted as a style statement and a trendy habit, and how e-cigarettes are viewed as a cool and chic product. As a result, e-cigarettes have gained acceptance as a social indulgence while their harmful effects are ignored.
In the past decade, sales of e-cigarettes have risen sharply. Industry analysts forecast that sales of e-cigarettes and vaping products will surpass $44 billion in the next five years. This suggests that huge amounts of money are being invested in this industry, including major stakes being purchased by conglomerates comprising Big Tobacco. Hence, billions of dollars are spent annually on advertising e-cigarettes. However, there is a lack of conclusive scientific evidence to suggest that e-cigarettes are effective for curbing tobacco addiction, and the uncertainty that surrounds prolonged use should be reason enough to be skeptical and careful.
While e-cigarettes might be a product of choice for smokers who are trying to quit, it must also be realized that they are purchased by non-smokers, particularly teenagers and young adults. The surge in popularity of e-cigarettes among youth is not surprising, as manufacturers actively target a young demographic by advertising products on social media platforms, using pop culture messaging and references in their promotion, and sponsoring music festivals and other events. The introduction of thousands of flavors is also a highly dangerous tactic to attract young consumers. Lab results show that these flavoring substances increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and tissue damage among users.
Even if used without any flavoring, e-cigarettes are still very harmful. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recently reviewed over 800 scientific studies related to smoking e-cigarettes and vaping. They found no evidence that could classify e-cigarettes as safe, as the amount of nicotine consumption remains comparable with traditional cigarettes, which poses many of the same health risks. Moreover, the study also found that carcinogens present in e-cigarette aerosols including nitrosamines, formaldehyde, acrolein and other dangerous toxins can potentially damage DNA and brain cells, and lead to life-threatening diseases.
It will take years of detailed and focused research to conclusively establish the long-term dangers of e-cigarettes. However, findings from existing research nevertheless helps to highlight their potentially harmful impact on users. In light of mounting evidence, San Francisco became the first US city to ban e-cigarettes, along with several other countries including Brazil, Qatar, Singapore and India. Other countries, like the United Kingdom, have regulated sales and restricted access to young individuals.
Despite multiple efforts and lobbying by the tobacco industry, the US Food and Drug Administration has not approved the use of e-cigarettes as smoking-cessation aids. Additionally, the World Health Organization has identified claims made by the tobacco industry regarding e-cigarettes which it believes constitute misinformation. Accordingly, while more time is needed to establish the long-term impact of e-cigarettes, the current evidence is enough to conclude that using them represents a serious challenge for both individual and public health.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.