Everybody knows that smoking increases lung cancer development risk. Therefore, many smokers switch to vaping to help them quit smoking. Unfortunately, many young people have now started vaping as an alternative to cigarettes, believing it's not as harmful. So what is the truth behind vaping, which is promoted as a safer option than smoking tobacco?
Vaping is the inhaling of various heated and aerosolized substances created by an electronic cigarette or other devices.
An e-cigarette works by heating and vaporizing a liquid (also known as vape juice or e-liquid), which is then inhaled.
Whether or not vaping is healthier than nicotine products depends on the vape juices because they (or their by-products) are the only thing that comes into contact with or enters the vaper's system.
Vape juices do not contain tobacco or some of the many carcinogens found in cigarettes, which are the most harmful part of smoking, but they do contain nicotine and various other chemicals.
E-cigarettes and vaping devices are considered healthier alternatives to smoking tobacco, relatively speaking, but scientific studies show that vape liquids still may contain cancer-promoting substances.
What is vaping?
The term “vaping” describes the use of electronic cigarettes (also known as e-cigarettes or vapes) or other devices to inhale various heated and aerosolized substances, such as nicotine, cannabidiol, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). E-cigarettes heat and vaporize a liquid (also known as vape juice or e-liquid), which is then inhaled.
Many people think vaping is much safer than standard nicotine products, which is why electronic cigarettes are trendy. Whether vaping is healthier than nicotine products depends on the vape juices because they (or their by-products) are the only thing that comes into contact with or enters the vapers system.
Composition of vape juice
Vape juices typically contain four main ingredients: water, nicotine, flavorings, and a vegetable glycerin base or propylene glycol (sweet-tasting colorless or brown liquids). While most vape juices are nicotine-based, recently, e-liquids containing cannabis and cannabinoids instead of nicotine have also become popular.
Therefore, these vape juices do not contain tobacco — the chemicals and carcinogens used to treat tobacco in cigarettes are the most harmful, many of which are cancer-causing. That is why e-cigarettes and vaping devices are considered healthier alternatives.
Scientific studies show that dangerous products from vaping juices can still be produced during the vaping process. In 2009, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that e-cigarettes contain detectable levels of carcinogens — compounds that promote the formation of cancer. Researchers determined that these substances or their derivative products, generated via pyrolysis (the process of the thermal decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures) and combustion due to the oxidative environment they create, or their initiated DNA breaks/fragmentation induce gene changes within the cell. This, in turn, can lead to the formation of new cancer cells.
Some of the most common cancer-inducing substances found in vaping juices are listed below:
Glycerin base/propylene glycol derivatives
The compounds are considered safe, non-toxic, and have no cancer-causing properties. However, during vaping, they can thermally degrade and form acetaldehyde, acrolein, and formaldehyde — which are carcinogens. These compounds can not only initiate the development of lung cancer but can also harm the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.
Although the name of this group of compounds sounds nice and harmless, it isn't. Recent studies show that some flavor enhancers used in vaping juices are toxic, and some even demonstrate carcinogenic effects. For example, diacetyl is used to provide a buttery flavor, but regularly inhaling its vapors could lead to the formation of scars in lung airways, which causes bronchiolitis obliterans, a disease that obstructs the smallest of the lungs' airways (bronchioles).
Another good example is the compound ethyl maltol. This substance adds a caramel flavor to e-liquids. However, its regular use has been associated with cancerous cell development as it can induce free radical formation (oxidative stress) and organism inflammatory response.
Volatile organic compounds
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are artificial chemicals with high vapor pressure and low water solubility thus, they are emitted as gasses from various solids or liquids. Many VOCs are used and produced in the manufacture of petroleum fuels, hydraulic fluids, paints, paint thinners, etc. However, vapers may also be exposed to VOCs, such as acrylamide, benzene, and propylene oxide. Although scientific studies show that e-cigarettes produce lower VOC levels than conventional cigarettes, they still pose a health risk because they are carcinogenic.
Vitamin E acetate
This compound is a synthetic form of vitamin E. It is added to e-liquids to dilute or thicken them. While natural vitamin E is benign and relatively biologically inert, during the vaping process, vitamin E acetate yields gasses that can be irritating, toxic, and carcinogenic.
Vape juice contaminants
In addition to the primary ingredients of vape juice, they usually also contain other unpure compounds, which emerge from the e-liquids during the production process. Unfortunately, manufacturers are not always aware of or do not disclose their presence. However, the main contaminants found in vape juices are heavy metals. As vaping devices contain heating elements (made from metal) and metal is used for soldering joints, during the heating process, aerosolized heavy metal microparticles could appear. Permanent exposure to heavy metals, such as chromium, nickel, strontium, manganese, and lead, can cause severe health problems, including lung cancer.
Is vaping harmful to the lungs?
A smoker inhales smoke produced by burning tobacco from a traditional cigarette. However, e-cigarettes don't contain tobacco. Instead, a person inhales an aerosol created by vaporizing the vape juice. Consequently, e-liquids contain many chemical compounds, which are introduced into the lungs when inhaled. The body's defense mechanisms fight these invaders by activating an inflammatory response. As a result, over time, this constant inflammatory state in the lungs could trigger the formation of chronic lung diseases.
Although scientists are still trying to understand the exact compounds and mechanisms of how vaping affects the lungs, preliminary research suggests that it significantly increases the risk of developing lung diseases, such as bronchitis, bronchiolitis obliterans, bronchiectasis, lipoid pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), primary spontaneous pneumothorax, emphysema, and cancer.
Vaping and lung cancer
Since e-liquids do not contain tobacco, vaping is believed to be less dangerous than smoking. However, it is still a risk factor. As in the case of lung diseases, compounds in or by-products of vape juices can initiate changes in cells that can turn a healthy cell into a cancerous one. Because e-cigarettes and other vaping devices are relatively new, the medical community still lacks long-term scientific data regarding their health effects. As a result, e-liquids have yet to be properly evaluated in controlled studies to determine whether they promote lung cancer.
Hence, there is still a long way to fully understand the potential risk of vaping, but based on the current data, there is a high probability that lung cancer is on the list of vaping's serious side effects.
- Lung Cancer. Vaping and lung cancer – A review of current data and recommendations.
- Journal of Cancer Biology. Can electronic-cigarette vaping cause cancer?
- European Journal of Cancer Prevention. Electronic cigarettes, vaping-related lung injury and lung cancer: where do we stand?