Electronic cigarettes, an alternative to smoking tobacco, have been gaining in popularity in recent years as a ‘healthier’ version of smoking and as an aid in smoking cessation. But, are they really as safe and healthy as they are touted to be?
Electronic cigarettes, otherwise known as e-cigs or e-cigarettes, provide nicotine ‘addicts’ with an alternative to smoking tobacco. E-cigs even look like normal cigarettes, but they don’t actually contain tobacco. Instead, they have a mechanism that heats up nicotine, turning it into vapor, which smokers can then inhale on.
E-cigs have been marketed as a ‘healthier’ alternative for smokers, due to their lack of tobacco, a substance that has been reported to be the single greatest cause of preventable death globally, by the World Health Organization (WHO). Many diseases have been linked to tobacco consumption, including cancer and more particularly lung cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer mortality today.
Although already patented in 1963 by Herbert A. Gilbert, e-cig popularity has only soared in recent years, due to the increasing number of smokers looking for ‘healthier’ alternatives or other aids besides nicotine gum and patches to help them quit smoking. It has been postulated that using e-cigs as an aid to quit smoking can be more effective than other more traditional methods, since the act of holding and puffing on the e-cigarette may act better to reduce cravings.
Given all this positive hype about e-cigs, it would seem like they are a dream come true for people looking for a ‘healthier’ replacement to their smoking habbit. However, recent data published about the effects of e-cigs on bronchial epithelial cells (cells lining the main passageway into the lungs) provide new evidence that this type of cigarette may not be the healthiest alternative to traditional smoking after all...
Is e-cig vapor a healthier alternative to tobacco smoke?
Researchers have now strived to answer this question in one of the first studies to examine the biological effects of e-cigarettes. In this study, immortalized human bronchial cells, containing mutations that are often found in current and former smokers at risk of lung cancer, were grown in media that had been exposed either to e-cig vapor or tobacco smoke. When examining the gene expression pattern of cells grown in either condition, a strikingly similar pattern was revealed.
Given that tobacco smoke has been linked to lung cancer, the next question that arose from these results, was whether or not e-cig vapor also has the potential to make airway epithelial cells undergo malignant transformation. By comparing the e-cig induced gene expression pattern of these cells with that of carcinogenic gene expression patterns established in previous and ongoing clinical investigations, scientists are now attempting to answer this question. At the same time, they are also testing some candidate genes of those altered by e-cig vapor for their ability to drive the formation of cancerous cells.
In conclusion, seeing that e-cig vapor does appear to have an effect on airway epithelial cells, it is safe to say that e-cigs may not be completely harmless after all. However, at present, we are still lacking the information required in order to come to a definite conclusion about their cancer forming potential. Whether or not the change in the gene expression profile observed can actually drive carcinogenesis still remains to be seen. However, researchers are on a good way in examining this possibility. In the meantime though, considering also that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has recently laid out plans to regulate e-cigarettes, maybe it would be wise to think twice before taking up the e-cig habit. Clearly, the observations made in this study, put the ‘healthiness’ and use of e-cigs as smoking cessation aids into question.
S. J. Park et al. Clin. Cancer Res. 20, B16; 2014)
FDA e-cigarette announcement: