By: Tiago Palmisano
Edited by: Bryce Harlan
Cigarette use in the United States has significantly declined over the past decade. Anti-smoking campaigns such as the American Legacy Foundation’s “truth” have certainly played a role in this fortunate trend. Additionally, the gradually rising mountain of scientific evidence has helped to open the eyes of younger generations. However, a new form of tobacco use has violently boiled up as cigarette use has simmered down. The use of electronic cigarettes, commonly known as vaping, is generally thought of as safer than the traditional method. But does the science support vaping as a healthy alternative? Or will it be viewed as disastrous as smoking fifty years from now?
Before we can answer these questions, we need to pinpoint the major differences between vaping and smoking. A normal cigarette is actually quite simple. It consists of finely cut tobacco leaves rolled in a paper sleeve. A user ignites the paper at one end, releasing vaporized molecules that are then inhaled. Among these vaporized molecules is nicotine – the addictive substance present in tobacco. However, one of smoking’s key problems is that the process of burning tobacco also generates many other compounds that blacken teeth and cause cancer, among other things. Even though most modern cigarettes have a filter, a damaging amount of these byproducts are still inhaled. Therefore, the goal of vaping is to fine-tune this process in order to minimize smoking’s harmful effects. Electronics cigarettes use batteries to vaporize a mixture known as e-liquid to a very specific temperature. The “loophole” is that e-liquid contains only water, nicotine and a few other compounds. Therefore by vaping you avoid most of the damaging byproducts you inhale when smoking, while still consuming the nicotine you crave.
Seems like a great loophole, right? Well, as AsapSCIENCE succinctly summarizes in their informative video “Smoking vs Vaping” the inhalation of vaporized e-liquid may carry some negative consequences. For example, propylene glycol is commonly used as a chemical base in e-liquid. Although the Food and Drug Administration has classified propylene glycol as a safe food additive, it has been shown to cause irritation in some individuals upon inhalation. And herein lies the fundamental problem with vaping. What will be the effects of inhaling vaporized e-liquid over a span of five, ten, or even fifty years? Since vaping is a relatively new method for tobacco consumption, the long-term effects are still up in the air. To put it critically, vaping is to a certain degree a risky coin-flip.
Of course, I am not arguing that vaping is a poor substitute for traditional smoking. One study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal exposed nitrocellulose filters to forty-five cycles of either air, vapor, or smoke, with the filter serving as a proxy for the respiratory tract. The results showed that conventional smoking significantly increases the ratio of carbon to oxygen on the filter, while vaping does not. Since carbon is a product of combustion, this demonstrates that vaping likely functions as a safer alternative for current smokers. This also applies to marijuana, as another study published in the Harm Reduction Journal reveals that vaping cannabis decreases respiratory symptoms compared to smoking it.
Yet, more recent studies haven’t done much to calm fears about vaping. The American Association for the Advancement of Science had their annual meeting in February, and various scientists presented troubling findings concerning the toxicity e-cigarettes. One research team found that vaping, just like conventional smoking, decreases sperm count and increases sperm DNA damage in male mice. Another team found that while conventional smoking suppresses certain key immune genes in humans, vaping actually suppresses a larger number of immune genes. Therefore, vaping may decrease the ability to fight respiratory infections even more so than regular cigarettes. So in some ways vaping is safer than smoking, and in others it might actually inflict greater harm.
Unfortunately, we can only see the tip of the iceberg. As more time passes, scientists will surely continue to discover the specific effects of both short-term and, more importantly, long-term vaping. It appears as though vaping is a viable tool for weaning current smokers off of a nicotine addiction. But, as we are beginning to see, vaping involves stepping into the ring against an unknown opponent. Hopefully it never delivers the same crippling, devastating punch that smoking has.