Electronic cigarettes, seen by many as a healthy alternative to tobacco smoking, do cause damage to the lungs, scientists from the University of Athens, Greece, explained at the European Respiratory Society’s Annual Congress 2012, Vienna, on Sunday. Electronic cigarettes, also called e-cigarettes have also been marketed as effective smoking cessation devices. Professor Christina Gratziou and team set out to determine what the short-term effects of smoking with e-cigarettes might be on different individuals, including those with no known health problems, as well as existing smokers with and without lung conditions.
They carried out experiments on 32 volunteers; of whom 8 were lifetime non-smokers and 24 were current regular smokers. Some of them had healthy lungs, while others lived with asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). They were asked to use an electronic cigarette for 10 minutes, inhaling the vapors into their lungs. A spirometry test, as well as some others diagnostic procedures were used to measure their airway resistance. Airway resistance is used in respiratory physiology to measure the resistance of the respiratory tract to airflow coming in during inspiration (inhalation) and going out during expiration (exhalation).
They found that using an e-cigarette caused an instant increase in airway resistance that lasted for 10 minutes in the majority of the participants. Below are some of their findings:
- Non-smokers - even among lifetimes non-smokers, using an e-cigarette for ten minutes raised their airway resistance to 206% from 182% (mean average); the researchers described this as a “significant increase”.
- Current regular smokers - among existing regular smokers, the spirometry tests revealed a significant rise in airway resistance to 220%, from 176% after using one e-cigarette for ten minutes.
- COPD and Asthma patients experienced no significant increase in airway resistance from using one e-cigarette for ten minutes.
In the past decade, big tobacco has finally developed and marketed a cigarette* that does not cause cancer**. It’s the closest we’ve come to a cancer-free cigarette, which tobacco companies have been fantasizing about since the 1950s.
But there are a few catches. *First, they are arguably not even cigarettes, without the tobacco content or taste that the 1.1 billion global smokers enjoy. That’s the primary reason why e-cigarettes still represent only a tiny share of the market. **Second, while e-cigarettes probably won’t give you cancer, they may still contribute to heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and other ailments. Ultimately we know very little about the health effects — and given the history of cigarettes, that should worry you.
People smoke e-cigarettes to get a nicotine high, similar to the kind one gets with traditional cigarettes. While the nicotine in e-cigarettes comes from the tobacco plant, it is separated from tar and other plant material that cause cancer when smoked. Because there hasn’t been any research into the long-term effects of inhaling nicotine vapor from an e-cigarette, we can’t say for sure that they don’t cause cancer. What we can say is that the e-cigarettes are most likely healthier than tobacco cigarettes because they lack the 4,000 plus chemicals from the tobacco leaves.
E-cigarettes hold nicotine in liquid form, which gets heated into a vapor and released when a user sucks on the end.
That nicotine high
The stimulating effects of nicotine are immediate. It makes its way through the mucus membranes of your lungs and into your bloodstream, then into your brain. When it hits your brain, nicotine binds to brain cells that turn on the body’s “wake-up call” pathways. It also releases dopamine, our “feel good” brain chemical, and glutamate, which is involved in learning and memory, reinforcing this good feeling and making your memory of it stronger.
In about an hour, half of the nicotine from that smoke is already broken down and expelled from your body, leaving you craving more. Regular nicotine users develop a tolerance to the drug, making them use more and more, for example, moving from a cigarette a day to a few packs per week. The same thing can happen with inhaled nicotine.
It can still kill you
E-cigarettes may not cause cancer, but that doesn’t make them safe. Nicotine on its own is an extremely toxic poison similar to pesticides. When you take too much, you can get nicotine poisoning, which causes vomiting and nausea, and headaches.
Even in smaller doses it can be dangerous. When you take in nicotine, your body releases adrenaline — giving you a sudden rush of energy and increasing your heartbeat, blood pressure, and breathing. It also tells your body to pump your blood with sugars. Because of these effects, nicotine use is linked to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
A small study, presented at the European Respiratory Society’s annual meeting in February 2012 showed that e-cigarette smoking could have negative effects on people with coronary artery disease who have plaques in their arteries, because it lowers blood oxygen levels after 10 minutes of e-cigarette use. The researchers, from the University of Athens in Greece, suggested that people with these health issues should use other nicotine products to quit smoking.