Electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) have become a fad consumer product in several countries and are banned in others. Here in Canada, nicotine-containing products are regulated (de facto banned) by Health Canada, and non-nicotine e-cigs are legal for sale. However, nicotine products are openly sold in e-cig boutiques in Canada and are available online.
Everyone seems to ask one of two questions: “Are e-cigs harmful?” or “Are e-cigs less harmful than smoking?”
In a year or so, tobacco control researchers expect to have enough published studies for evidence-based recommendations on e-cigs. Here is some of the data available now on the composition of inhaled and exhaled vapor.
Sellers and most users believe that what they are “vaping” (inhaling) is the base ingredient (propylene glycol and/or glycerine), flavouring ingredients, and nicotine (or none). However, research has detected other harmful substances in e-cig vapour, including formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, nickel, chromium, and lead. Some vapour testing has identified lead and chromium concentrations equivalent to cigarettes, and nickel concentrations two to 100 times higher than in Marlboro cigarette smoke. Yet the potential for harm reduction is evidenced by a study finding the average levels of 12 toxic substances in vapour to be nine to 450 times lower than in cigarette smoke.
Now what about second-hand vapour? Vapour has been demonstrated to produce second-hand nicotine exposure, even though nicotine levels in second-hand vapour were one tenth of those in smoke from tobacco cigarettes. For example, one study showed that of the 20 compounds present in second-hand smoke, e-cigs produced four of them, with three at significantly lower levels than cigarettes. However, one study found similar levels of nicotine biomarkers in research subjects exposed to second-hand vapour as to second-hand smoke.
Research to date informs us that vapour has fewer toxins than cigarette smoke, and has comparatively lower concentrations of other harmful compounds. But e-cigs do produce problematic toxic exposures, and vapour does add some toxins to the air. With studies documenting airborne nicotine and positive tests for second-hand nicotine exposure, the precautionary principle would subject vaping to current smoking bans to protect bystanders, as recommended by the German Cancer Research Centre.
Many more questions need to be addressed, including product safety and the potential increase in population rates of nicotine use, before the healthcare community will be able to assess if e-cigs can be endorsed for harm reduction. In the meantime, e-cig users continue to vape, hoping that they are reducing their health risks, and bystanders breathe in vape, hoping that it is harmless.
From the available research, one fact is clear: while e-cig vapour exhibits potential for harm reduction, e-cig vapour is not harmless water vapour.
Author: Renee O’Leary, PhD student, Centre for Addictions Research of BC, University of Victoria
**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC