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Vaping vs. Smoking: Is Vaping Bad for You, Too?

Jim McDonald
December 21, 2018

Vaping vs. smoking

Every discussion of the health risks of vaping should begin with a comparison to cigarette smoking. This is important for two reasons. First, vapes are designed to be reduced-harm alternatives to smoking cigarettes. Second, it’s important to weigh vaping versus smoking because the vast majority of vapers are smokers or ex-smokers.

When it comes to science though, not enough studies employ a direct comparison between vaping and smoking. That’s a missed opportunity. It’s understood that smoking is bad for you with many health risks, but is vaping bad for you? How can does vaping affect your health? Separate from understanding the absolute safety of vaping, it’s imperative to know if vaping is much safer than smoking.

Public Health England has been unequivocal in its findings: vaping is at least 95 percent safer than smoking. They understand that studying the dangers of vaping alone is only half of the subject, since vaping exists primarily as an alternative to smoking. Since there aren’t many studies that employ a direct comparison, the available information on vaping must be measured against the available information on cigarette smoking, rather than in isolation.

Is vaping bad for your lungs?

Smoking cigarettes causes well-known harm to the lungs. Long-term inhalation of burning tobacco can lead to lung and esophageal cancer, and to a variety of deadly lung conditions like emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But what about vaping?

Cigarette smoke attacks the lungs in several ways. It contains thousands of chemicals, more than 70 of which are known carcinogens. It also contains particulate matter — fine bits of burned tobacco and paper — that is deposited deep in the lungs, where they can be buried in the tissue. Vaping doesn’t produce known carcinogens in quantities large enough to be considered real risks, and it doesn’t contain solid particles like smoke.

In fact, the things that are most dangerous in burning tobacco are largely absent from vaping. Since there is no combustion in vaping, there is no tar or carbon monoxide — two other major dangers of smoking. Vaping uses heat from a coil to turn e-liquid into an inhalable aerosol. It looks like smoke, but isn’t. That said, vaping is not without some potential risks to lung health.

There is some concern over the ingredients in e-liquid: propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, and flavorings. There is no serious human research on the effects of inhaling PG or VG daily for an extended period of time, although extensive animal studies of PG inhalation haven’t raised any red flags. PG has been found to cause minor irritation of the airways, but this isn’t concerning in itself.

Are flavors bad for your lungs?

E-liquid flavorings are a possible source of danger that hasn’t been well-studied. Most flavorings are a mixture of many chemical compounds, and it’s likely that some are worse for lung health than others. Until recently, these flavorings were used strictly in products that were eaten, not inhaled. So toxicology studies have focused on showing that the flavorings are safe for consumption. This is an area where the science on vaping needs to catch up.

A recurring headline has been about diketones like diacetyl being found in some e-liquid. This group of flavoring chemicals is believed to be responsible for a deadly disease called popcorn lung when it is inhaled in large quantities (like in the case of workers in popcorn manufacturing facilities). Diketones are not present in all e-liquid, but a 2014 study by Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos concluded that diacetyl and acetyl propionyl are “avoidable risks.” Following that, many manufacturers reformulated their products and eliminated them. Others began publishing testing showing the levels of the diketones in their products.

Diketones are present in cigarettes too, at 100-750 times the level of any e-liquid. Yet, even though smoking ravages the lungs in other ways, it isn’t associated with popcorn lung. Considering the much larger quantities of diketones in cigarette smoke, the comparatively small amounts in vapes are not likely to be a threat. That’s not to say diketones are safe for inhalation, but the safer choice between vaping and smoking is clear, considering the amounts present.

Is vaping bad for your oral health?

Smoking causes and contributes to a variety of oral health problems. Of course, it’s well-known that smokers are at high risk for mouth, throat and esophageal cancers. But cigarettes can also cause dental and periodontal disease, including gingival (gum) disorders. And cigarette smoke can alter the bacteria in the mouth (microbiome), making existing periodontal problems worse.

There isn’t much information available about medical side effects of vaping on oral health. A recent literature review in the Journal of Oral Pathology & Medicine summarized the state of the science, noting the “paucity of evidence.” However, the authors summarized a few interesting findings.

The authors describe a small study that suggests vapers may have increased prevalence of nicotine stomatitis (which is, oddly, not caused by nicotine), a condition caused by heat that creates lesions in the mouth. This is a minor condition that typically resolves itself when the source of heat (typically a pipe) is eliminated.

A small pilot study examined the oral microbiome of 10 vapers, 10 smokers, and 10 non-vapers/smokers. The authors found that the bacterial profile of vapers was similar to the non-vaping/smoking control group, but that the smoking group’s oral bacteria profile was very different. The researchers concluded that vapor doesn’t alter the microbiome. Again, the study was very small, so broad conclusions can’t be made. The review covers some other small studies, but questions their relevance based on their small size and lack of proper controls.

Finally, there is the issue of exploding vapes causing damage to the mouths of vapers. While it’s true that a very small number of vapers have had catastrophic accidents that caused severe facial and oral lacerations and broken teeth, this is more a matter of vape battery safety than anything else. Using modern regulated devices and quality batteries, there is virtually no chance that an atomizer will be launched from a mod into the user’s teeth.

Can vaping cause cancer?

Cancers form when toxins damage or mutate a cell’s DNA and cause it to grow out of control. A tumor can remain local, or the cancer can spread, and even move from one organ to another. Most people are familiar with cigarette smoking as a cause of lung cancer. Lung cancer kills more Americans than any other kind of cancer, and most (but not all) lung cancer victims are smokers.

Smoking can cause many other kinds of cancer too, because cancers can form not just in areas that have contact with the smoke, but also from smoke byproducts in the bloodstream and organs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body.

Carcinogens have been found in vapes, but at levels that suggest the cancer risk is very low. According to a 2017 study in the journal Tobacco Control, the cancer risk of vaping is on a par with the risk of using pharmaceutical products like nicotine patches — less than one percent the cancer risk of smoking. The only byproducts of vaping that posed a real risk were carbonyls produced by overheating the vape device (as explained in the formaldehyde section of this article).

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. A 2016 study published in the journal Mutation Research tested both e-cig vapor and cigarette smoke for their ability to cause cell mutations in bacteria. The smoke caused mutations, and was also toxic to the bacteria, while the vapor was not mutagenic or toxic.

Nicotine itself — either in cigarettes or vapes, or other nicotine products — has not been shown to cause cancer. Long-term studies of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and Swedish snus users show no provable link between nicotine and cancer.

The 2016 Royal College of Physicians report on e-cigarettes says that “robust evidence on the safety of long-term nicotine use in humans from the 5-year Lung Health Study, in which participants were actively encouraged to use NRT for several months and many continued to consume NRT for a much longer period, demonstrates no association between sustained NRT use and the occurrence of cancer (lung, gastrointestinal or any cancer) or cardiovascular disease.”

Is there formaldehyde in vapes?

What is formaldehyde? The EPA states that “formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas at room temperature and has a strong odor. Exposure to formaldehyde may cause adverse health effects.”

Portland State University researchers reported in 2015 that vapor products produced high levels of formaldehyde — even more than cigarettes. What they didn’t explain was that their experiments used unrealistically high voltages and smoking machines to produce vapor that would have been unbearable for anyone to inhale.

In fact, you can do a similar experiment by putting bread in a toaster and leaving it until the toaster emits smoke and the bread turns black with carbon. Is the result carcinogenic? Yes it is, but since no one could possibly eat it, the danger is moot. Is black toast what you think of when you think of toast? Likewise, the toxic aldehydes produced by a burning wick and atomizer are no real danger because they’re impossible to repeatedly inhale.

In a 2017 study, cardiologist Konstantinos Farsalinos replicated the Portland State experiment and showed that the vapor produced by deliberately overheating was unpalatable to human users. “The high levels of formaldehyde emissions that were reported in a previous study were caused by unrealistic use conditions that create the unpleasant taste of dry puffs to e-cigarette users and are thus avoided,” wrote the author.

In 2018, Farsalinos and Gene Gillman produced a systematic review that analyzed the evidence from 32 studies on the carbonyl compounds like formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acrolein that have been found in vapor. The authors found that nearly all of the high levels of carbonyls like formaldehyde produced during the studies were created by poor methodology leading to “dry puff conditions.” They proposed standards for future research that defined proper parameters for vaping experiments, including a standardized puffing regime, using current-generation atomizers and realistic power settings, and proper PG/VG ratios for the equipment tested.

The authors also explained that we inhale 1 mg of formaldehyde every day, just in our own homes. The average vaper, using 5 mg of e-liquid a day in a modern atomizer, only increases their formaldehyde intake by 0.083 mg. That’s less than a 9 percent increase above the normal exposure level, which is probably not significant.

The bottom line

Cigarettes wreak havoc on the body, damaging the smoker practically from head to toe. The harms have been proven beyond doubt. But there is no evidence pointing to similar health effects from vaping — or any health problems, for that matter — unless you count possible nicotine dependence. But nicotine isn’t directly responsible for any of the terrible results of smoking. Vaping remains a far better choice when compared to smoking.

Smokers created vaping without any help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and vapers have the right to keep innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I recently joined the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy

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Derrick
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Derrick

If only we could condense this into something short yet informative every vaper could tell all these jackasses who constantly cry about how vaping is bad for you. Well let me say this. I smoked for 2 years, a pack a day. Anytime I smoked right before bed (I smoked a lot when I was tired), I’d either wake up during the night literally choking to death or I’d wake up like normal but still cough for several hours after waking up. To see if something similar would happen with vape, I took several huge rips off my Voopoo Rex… Read more »

Paul Shushack
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Paul Shushack

People like to whine about everything!

Seth
Guest
Seth

I used vaping to quit smoking. That was my intention from the start. Switching from cigarettes to vaping caused no withdrawal effects. When I stopped cigarettes and started vaping, I immediately was able to breath more deeply without coughing. After about a year of vaping, though, I started working out at my local health club. I definitely had trouble with deep breathing that I attribute to vaping. This was my subjective experience, of course. But I had to stop vaping in order to make progress at the gym. I felt that the smoke from vaping was irritating my lungs. My… Read more »

SDHargreaves
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SDHargreaves

I’ve read the article and found it insightful, I read all the comments and found them equally insightful but entertaining as well. I am a former smoker now turned dedicated ‘Vaper’, but I do know that inhaling or ingesting foreign elements into your body will always have harmful side effects. Now if you’re one of those ‘lesser of two evils’ types, I believe vaping is the lesser evil of the two by a large margin, but believing you can inhale pure nicotine and the chemicals used to produce the myriad of flavours is a fool’s errand. Nicotine IS a poison… Read more »

Maddie Reeze
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Maddie Reeze

Vaping very well could be safe and an effective smoking cessation tool. I would agree that they are probably safer than conventional cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Dave Kriegel
Staff
Dave Kriegel

Definitely. There is something about vaping that you can’t get from the patches or gum.

ML
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ML

What is the effect of the nicotine on those nearby who are not vaping

Sharon Hall
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Sharon Hall

You can do that research for yourself. You might be surprised.

Sharon Hall
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Sharon Hall

Nicotine is nicotine. What would you expect? Check out the science on it. Don’t depend on those who are promoting it.

Janak Raj
Guest
Janak Raj

Yeah, nicotine is nicotine .. Take it with the help of a vaporizer. No need of sticking 4000+ chemicals + tar + carbon monoxide. Thank you for enlightening all.

Dave Kriegel
Staff
Dave Kriegel

Hey ML, that is a great question that we will have to look into. As far as I have seen, so far the research points to the fact that second-hand vapor is a lot safer than second-hand smoke due to the absence of tar and carbon monoxide. However, there may still be trace amounts of nicotine in that vapor, which can be inhaled by non-vapers so I don’t really know the answer to your question, but I do agree that further research on the topic is necessary.

-Dave

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