Are E-Cigarettes Less Harmful? Yes And No, New Study Suggests

E-cigarette vapor is likely less carcinogenic than secondhand smoke, but is higher in metals.
Hands holding a tobacco cigarette and an e-cigarette.
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Gianluca Rasile via shutterstock |


Benjamin Plackett, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- From the strip malls of the Midwest to the boutiques of Manhattan’s West Village, e-cigarette stores can be found almost anywhere in the U.S.

The science surrounding e-cigarettes has been cloudy at best — leaving several unanswered questions. A new piece of research published in the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts has helped to clear the smoke surrounding one of these questions: Is secondhand e-cigarette smoke less harmful than its traditional counterpart? Its conclusion is yes, but experts agree this doesn’t necessarily spell good news for e-cigarette enthusiasts.

Today’s U.S. e-cigarette market is 85 times larger than it was back in 2008 and the latest projections estimate U.S. sales will reach $1.7 billion by the end of this year.

In a response to the rise in popularity of e-cigarettes, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a new rule in April of this year. This rule would force manufacturers to register with the agency, report their ingredients and only market their product after an FDA review. It would also forbid the distribution of free samples and require a health warning to accompany the packaging.

In short, it would bring e-cigarettes under the agency’s control just as conventional tobacco is. This is something that e-cigarette opponents have been lobbying for.

The recent study found that the concentration of carcinogenic compounds in vapor from e-cigarettes is ten times lower than that of a traditional cigarette. They also found that some metals such as lead were of a lower concentration.

However, other metals can be found in higher concentrations in the wispy haze released by e-cigarettes. The concentration of nickel in e-vapor was nearly four times higher than cigarette smoke, with an emission rate of 130.5 nanograms per hour. Increased exposure to nickel has been shown to induce gastrointestinal distress and respiratory diseases among other ailments.

Two other metals were found to be unique to e-cigarette vapor — chromium at 28.1 nanograms per hour and titanium at 50.16 nanograms per hour. Both were absent from cigarette smoke entirely and come with their own set of health concerns including bronchitis and pneumonia.

“Manufacturers can no longer tell us with a straight face that e-cigarettes just emit water vapor,” said Daniel Seidman, the director of Smoking Cessation Services at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, who was not involved with the study. He added that the new research confirms previous findings by showing that secondhand e-cigarette vapor is less harmful than secondhand smoke, but still harmful nonetheless.

“This study is helping to reach a critical mass of evidence, which has previously been lacking.”

The study’s authors placed three volunteers in an ordinary office room and asked them to smoke regular cigarettes. They analyzed the components of the air before and after. Then, they did the same with e-cigarettes.

“We tried to simulate the exposure of secondhand smoke and vapor,” said lead author Arian Saffari from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The higher concentration of nickel, chromium and titanium in e-cigarette vapor comes from the heat applied to the metal casings of the cartridges used in the device, said Saffari.

“Vapor is less harmful, but the small amounts of metals that we found [are] still a concern. It’s not healthy for e-cigarettes to be left unregulated.”

One thing e-cigarette manufactures could do to address Saffari’s results would be to change the materials they use in their casings, though he anticipates that more heat resistant materials would be an additional expense.

Saffari’s primary motivation was to provide scientific fact to help regulatory bodies around the world make their decisions.

“From a toxicology point of view, e-cigarettes should be banned from public environments and treated like regular cigarettes,” he said.

In the past, e-cigarette brands have used their non-tobacco status as a selling point. One such company’s website reads: “Electronic cigarettes are not traditional cigarettes and do not burn tobacco, so they may be smoked in places with smoking bans that only apply to traditional cigarettes.”

After the FDA announced the proposed rule, it allowed for several months of public comment, which came to a close on August 8, 2014.

“The next step is the development and publication of a final rule, which has the force of law,” said FDA spokesperson Jennifer Haliski in an email to Inside Science. The FDA declined to speculate as to when the final rule will be announced, but Haliski did confirm that they are aware of Saffari’s research and that they are reviewing it.

“On the one hand, this study is good news for e-cigarettes; it shows they’re safer,” said Seidman. “On the other hand, it’s bad news for them because it supports the notion of regulating them and they don’t want that.”


Author Bio & Story Archive

Benjamin Plackett is a science journalist based in Australia.