A study released in 2014 by the Center for Disease Control revealed that over 9 million adults vape regularly in the United States

Are electronic cigarettes a safer nicotine delivery system than combustible cigarettes? The question has been fraught with disagreement, politics, and conflicting scientific studies, depending on where you look. To really understand that initial question, we had to dig deeper first, into the backstory, and figure out just what was so difficult to understand.  E-cigarettes are popular, so there must be reams of data, right? Far from it, as it turns out.

So just how many people are vaping? A study released in 2014 by the Center for Disease Control revealed that over 9 million adults vape regularly in the United States1  That’s quite a few. Of course, the more popular something gets, the more likely it is that the regulation-heavy US government was going to take notice of this burgeoning industry. Higher scrutiny has its pluses and minuses. More rules across the board meant a more challenging playing field for business owners, but also meant a safer vaping experience for everyone.

But, where were all of these all-encompassing laws? The US government is a little slow (sometimes) in actually getting the protocols put into place. A final set of law and regulations for this budding industry was not set in place by the FDA until late December 20162. While these regulations spanned everything from retail sales and importing to mixing, manufacturing, and more, the comparison in safety of traditional cigarettes or “combustible” cigarettes to e-cigarettes wasn’t clear. Which one was safer: E-cigarettes or combustible cigarettes? Though it seems like a straight-forward question, figuring it out turned out to be more complicated than the average citizen might think.

If you’ve looked around, chances are you’ve seen someone vaping. While driving. While walking. While waiting for the bus. They’re pretty much in every social situation you can imagine. The use of various forms of e-cigarettes has risen dramatically, with almost half of current smokers and more than half of former smokers having tried them4. Those are some big numbers. While reports and studies from various countries and agencies have found the presence of hazardous substances in some e-liquids and their emissions, the health risks were still not clear. So what’s the story? Why is it so hard to figure out this one point? One of the challenges in understanding the actual health risks involved was simply a lack of direct data evaluating the health risks of e-cigarettes.

 

Remember the scientific method in middle school? Try taking that up several, several notches. This is the level a certain study had to take to really dig in and get clear answers. A study using the EPA human health risk assessment methodology, a structured method that attempts to “estimate the nature and probability of adverse health effects in humans who may be exposed to chemicals in contaminated environmental media, now or in the future.” 5.  So what does that mean exactly? Let’s keep it simple: What are the chances and how bad would health effects be if a person was exposed to something unhealthy? Sure, it’s a little simplified, but that’s the gist.

Using this method, the study evaluated the health risks of e-cigarette use with that of smoking. In a comparative literature review, over 96 articles were referenced, including 42 which were linked to chemical studies, 10 to toxicological studies, 40 to human studies, and 9 to non-user effects of e-cigarettes 3. In other words, they covered as many possible bases as they could. They wanted to make sure they had a complete, solid study.

And this is where it gets really interesting. To make sure they looked at this from all angles, they analyzed two studies that approached this from two completely different angles. All of the data pertaining to hazardous exposure were collected by two reviewed studies, Goniewicz et al., (EC study) and Counts et al.

Goniewicz’s study measured toxic compounds extracted from vapours into a solid or liquid phase, analyzing the results with chromatographic methods, which separates the chemicals into individual compounds for analysis (i.e. breaking down everything=better detail and more accurate data) and spectroscopy, which measures light that is emitted, absorbed, or scattered by materials, enabling the toxic compounds to be reviewed for further study6. In Counts’ study, the hazards in combustible cigarette emissions were identified by analyzing the mainstream smoke created.

 

In these studies, 12 e-cigarette products and 50 combustible cigarette products were assessed. The focus of health risks was concentrated on the following areas: cancer, cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and respiratory diseases.

 

So, what’s the verdict? E-cigarette emissions contained four hazards at maximum exposure levels higher than guideline levels, while combustible cigarettes had seven hazards. In addition, two hazards in e-cigarettes compared to five hazards in combustible cigarettes had average exposure levels higher than the guideline levels3.

 

Fewer hazards means less exposure to toxic chemicals. E-cigarettes are safer than combustible cigarettes.

 

 

Sources:

1) https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db217.pdf

2) https://www.fda.gov/tobaccoproducts/labeling/rulesregulationsguidance/ucm394909.htm

3) http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/14/4/382

4) Schoenborn, C.A.; Gindi, R.M. Electronic Cigarette Use among Adults: United States 2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: United States, 2015. Available online: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db217.pdf (accessed on 13 February 2017).

5) https://www.epa.gov/risk/human-health-risk-assessment

6) https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/deepimpact/science/spectroscopy.cfm