Smoking cigarettes cancer
Five years ago you’d probably never heard of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes. Now it seems you can’t open a newspaper – or go into a newsagent, supermarket or pharmacist – without seeing them advertised or on sale.
For smokers concerned about the toxic cocktail of cancer-causing substances in tobacco smoke, e-cigarettes – sometimes touted as a safer alternative to smoking – might initially sound like a Holy Grail. We’re determined to reduce the number of smoking-related cancers. If e-cigarettes can help reduce this toll, it’s crucial to public health that this avenue is properly explored to fully understand the benefits and risks of these devices.
There are widely differing responses to the replication of the act of smoking offered by e-cigarettes use, known as vaping. Some people see a unique opportunity to promote a mass switch to vaping that would avoid the massive health toll of smoking tobacco on the 1 in 5 adults smoking in the UK today. Others see e-cigarette as posing a great risk that would keep people too close to their cigarette habit, making a lapse back to smoking more likely.
Currently e-cigarettes are not regulated in the way that approved nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) such as patches and gum are. This means they haven’t undergone all the rigorous tests needed to ensure their safety and effectiveness.
We want to see ‘light touch’ regulation brought in, to ensure the products contents and delivery is monitored and consistent, they are not sold to under 18’s and that their marketing does not promote smoking itself.
The increasing popularity of e-cigarettes makes it crucial to answer questions about their impact – not just on the health of smokers who use them, but on non-smokers, ex-smokers, children and society as a whole.
That’s why we commissioned researchers at the University of Stirling to identify the unanswered questions and concerns around e-cigarettes, and look at the broader issue of tobacco ‘harm reduction’ – measures to reduce illness and death caused by tobacco use.
What are e-cigarettes?
E-cigarettes look like real cigarettes and usually consist of a battery, a cartridge containing nicotine (the addictive ingredient in tobacco), a solution of propylene glycol or glycerine mixed with water, and an atomiser (a device that turns the nicotine solution into a fine mist or vapour).
When someone inhales on the e-cigarette the nicotine solution is heated and evaporates. Research shows the e-cigarette user inhales a ‘hit’ of nicotine as they would when inhaling smoke from a cigarette (although other research has questioned how effective some e-cigarettes are at nicotine delivery).
Cartridges are available in different concentrations of nicotine, and in various flavours such as apple, chocolate, coffee and mint. Most e-cigarettes have an LED at the tip which lights up when someone inhales, in a similar way to the lit tip of a cigarette.
Are they really ‘safer than cigarettes’?
While it’s the highly addictive nicotine that keeps smokers hooked, it’s the toxic cocktail of chemicals in tobacco smoke that kills half of all long-term users. Traditional tobacco cigarettes contain around 4000 different chemicals, including toxins like arsenic and radioactive polonium-210. Tobacco smoke has long been recognised as a carcinogen responsible for more than one in four UK cancer deaths, and the biggest single cause of cancer in the world.
The lack of tobacco in e-cigarettes means they are almost certainly much safer way of getting a nicotine hit than smoking cigarettes.
But there are still some questions about the safety of the chemicals that are in e-cigarettes, and the current lack of regulation means there’s no way of verifying what’s actually in them, especially with so many different companies now entering the market.
For example, we know little about the safety of the propylene glycol in many e-cigarettes. And nicotine itself can be toxic in very high doses. So there are questions about the safety of leakage from cartridges and refill bottles.
Research has found that some e-cigarettes contain chemicals other than nicotine and propylene glycol or glycerin. Tests on some e-cigarettes have found small amounts of nitrosamines, formaldehyde (both cancer-causing chemicals), acetaldehyde and acrolein (toxins) in the vapour or liquid. These are all chemicals found in tobacco smoke, at far higher levels.
Given reports of malfunctions, we‘d like to see these products regulated to help ensure that the mechanical components in the device are safe and reliable, and deliver consistent doses of controlled chemical contents.