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Vaping may be no better than smoking when it comes to health risk

  • 09.04.2018
teen boy vaping


While many consider e-cigarettes a safer and healthier alternative to tobacco cigarettes, new research reveals more dangers of vaping than previous thought, including an increased risk of cancer.


What is vaping?

According to, an electronic cigarette is “a cigarette-shaped device containing a nicotine-based liquid that is vaporized and inhaled, used to simulate the experience of smoking tobacco.” Also called e-cigarettes, e-cigs, e-hookahs, hookah pens, vapes or vape pens, these battery-operated devices use a liquid reservoir and heating element to generate a vapor that is inhaled. The process is called vaping, in reference to the vapor that is inhaled.

While we have tackled this subject before – Are e-cigarettes safer than traditional cigarettes? – a year has passed and new research is emerging that indicates vaping is more dangerous to our health than previously thought.


Why vape instead of smoke?

In 2003, a Chinese pharmacist and smoker developed the first commercially successful electronic cigarette after his father, also a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer. It took several more years for e-cigarettes to make it past the FDA and into mainstream culture in the United States, but arrive they have.

During the past ten years, many former U.S. cigarette smokers have been vaping under the impression they were making a healthier choice. Teens, in particular, report choosing to vape because they believe it safer than smoking cigarettes. “One of the reasons why more teens are using these products is they feel that they are safe and/or safer than smoking,” says Dr. Mark Rubinstein, a professor of pediatrics with the University of California, San Francisco who has done research on e-cigarettes.

Starting in 2014, more teenagers used e-cigarettes or vaped nicotine than smoked cigarettes—a trend that continues. In a 2016 survey, nearly 12 of every 100 high school students (11.7%) reported that they used electronic cigarettes in the past 30 days—an increase from 1.5% in 2011. Nearly 8 of every 100 high school students (7.6%) reported in 2017 that they smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days—a decrease from 15.8% in 2011.

Related: Benefits of quitting smoking profound

man vaping in park

Dangers of vaping are becoming more evident

After several decades of use, research indicating the potential dangers of e-cigarettes and vaping are stacking up:

1) E-cigarette vapor contains chemicals that inflame lungs

According to a small study, published in the journal Thorax, e-cigarette vapor boosts the production of inflammatory chemicals and disables key protective cells in the lung that keep the air spaces clear of potentially harmful particles. Some of the effects of vaping were similar to those seen in regular smokers and people with chronic lung disease.

“The findings prompt the researchers to suggest that while further research is needed to better understand the long-term health impact of vaping on people, e-cigarettes may be more harmful than we think, as some of the effects were similar to those seen in regular smokers and people with chronic lung disease.”
– Science Daily, E-cigarette vapor disables key immune cells in the lung and boosts inflammation

2) Carcinogens found in urine of those who vape

Dr. Rubinstein of the University of California, San Francisco has conducted a study on the effects of e-cigarettes on teenagers and concluded that teens are exposing themselves to cancer-causing toxins, particularly if they choose fruit-flavored products. All of the toxins are known or suspected carcinogens and include, acrolein, acrylamide, acrylonitrile, crotonaldehyde and propylene oxide – all belong to a class of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Even teens who used nicotine-free products had several of the toxins in their urine.

“The most safe approach is smoking cessation, and for kids the most safe approach is smoking prevention. What I'm concerned about is that all this talk about 'more safe' under the rubric of harm reduction is going to make us forget about the importance of smoking prevention and smoking cessation.”
– Dr. Norman Edelman, senior scientific advisor to the American Lung Association

3) Vaping leave aldehydes in the lungs

Scientists at Desert Research Institute in Reno studied what happens to harmful chemicals in the vapor people inhale while using the devices. Their conclusion: People who use e-cigarettes as an alternative to traditional smoking are still retaining cancer-causing chemicals in their lungs. The research showed that users retained as much as 99% of formaldehyde inhaled, as well as other aldehydes (generally associated with the flavoring material in e-cigarette liquids) which studies have linked to liver damage and high blood pressure in animals. A portion of these toxins, as well as nicotine and particulates, are exhaled, posing a second-hand exposure concern.

“We found that the average concentration of aldehydes in the breath after vaping sessions was about ten and a half times higher than before vaping.”
– Vera Samburova, Associate Research Professor, Desert Research Institute, Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

Related: When It Comes To Your Health, Man Up


Do e-cigarettes cause cancer?

In January of 2018, an expert committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reviewed all available evidence of the health effects related to the use of e-cigarette and presented their findings in Public Health Consequences of E-Cigarettes.

The report states that substituting e-cigarettes for combustible tobacco cigarettes reduces exposure to numerous toxicants and carcinogens. So, if you are currently a smoker of tobacco cigarettes, vaping could provide lower levels of carcinogens, but it is far from safe. E-cigarettes contain numerous toxic substances, among them carcinogens, and there is “substantial evidence” that chemicals in e-cigarette aerosols can cause DNA damage and mutagenesis. In other words, long-term exposure to e-cigarette aerosols could increase the risk of cancer.

For more resources and information about cancer prevention and treatment approaches, browse our blog. For current cancer-related health news delivered to your inbox, subscribe to Sierra Nevada Cancer Center’s Newsletter.


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