Are Electronic Cigarettes a Danger to our Health?

Are Electronic Cigarettes a Danger to our Health?

Starting at a new university is a huge change for an 18 year old. Most of us choose to live away, so for the first time we are made to live with people we don’t know, attend lectures we know nothing about and try to socialise in a city that is completely new to us. What shocked me most when I came to university was the amount of people my age that were smoking; I studied medicine too so was surprised to see that so many of my peers were joining in even when they knew the risks. Many of my house-mates called themselves ‘social smokers,’ that is they only smoke on a night out. In the last year or so I have seen more and more people my age put down their cigarettes and take to ‘vaping’ instead: using electronic cigarettes in the place of real ones. When this trend first started it seemed harmless enough, and we were all under the impression that e-cigarettes only contained water vapour, so how could this be harmful? However, recent research has questioned this, and after all, isn’t that how we found out that smoking normal cigarettes caused cancer?

When the legislation came in to ban smoking in public places the amount of smokers decreased dramatically: apparently standing outside a club in the freezing cold was not an attractive thought. But since E-cigarettes were introduced to the market 3 years ago there has been an increase in the number of people trying out smoking, particularly those in the younger age categories.

Recent research has found that 20.3% of smokers have tried e-cigarettes, and 1.2% of people who have never smoked have also tried them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the prevalence of young people in grades 6-12 having used e-cigarettes in the past month had doubled from 1.1% to 2.1% from 2011 to 2012. The study also found that the use among high school students had increased from 1.5% to 2.8%. This is a significant number since e-cigarettes contain the addictive compound ‘nicotine,’ meaning that they are not completely harmless.

So, with so many of today’s youth experimenting with electronic cigarettes, how much do we actually know about them?

What are Electronic Cigarettes?
There are many different shapes and sizes of e-cigarettes depending on the manufacturer, but they all work in a similar way. All e-cigarettes will contain a battery, an atomizer and a cartridge which is sometimes replaceable. The cartridge is where the liquid nicotine is held in a solution of water and flavourings, and this liquid is drawn up into a heating element when the patient sucks on the device. The liquid then evaporates, sending some of it into your lungs and some into the atmosphere around you.

Regular cigarette smoke contains around 7000 cancer causing chemicals as a result of the burning tobacco. E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, which is why many people think they are safe, but because of the nicotine in the cartridge they are still just as addictive as regular cigarettes.

The cartridge which holds the nicotine also contains a number of other chemicals which help the liquid to evaporate. These include a number of flavours such as apple and strawberry, which appeal to a younger market. There is also a compound called propylene glycol in the cartridge. If someone handed you a can of aircraft de-icer would you inhale it? Because Propylene glycol is the main component of both.

Are Electronic Cigarettes Safe?
The real answer is that we aren’t entirely sure yet. A new study by the American Association for Cancer Research has shown that the vapour from e-cigarettes causes a similar pattern of gene expression in bronchial cells to tobacco smoke. That being said, it is not yet known whether this change is carcinogenic as e-cigarettes have not been on the market long enough.

When discussing the safety of e-cigarettes we must also take into account the danger of the cigarette itself. There have been a number of instances where e-cigarettes have exploded and actually injured people. One elderly woman was turned into a human fireball when her oxygen supply was ignited by the e-cigarette after a hip operation.

What are the Regulations Surrounding Electronic Cigarettes?
Well, at the moment there aren’t any, which is causing the British Medical Association (BMA) and World Health Association (WHO) a great deal of concern. Whilst e-cigarettes can be used as an aid to quitting smoking there is no current evidence to say that it is successful at this, or that it is completely without its own risks.

The WHO have urged doctors to refrain from recommending them to their patients as an aid for stopping smoking. Instead, the nicotine inhalator should be offered, as it has been fully regulated and is known to be safe. There is a worry that is doctors condone the use of e-cigarettes they might be hit by a mass of clinical negligence claims in the future, if it is decided that they are in fact harmful to our health.

What Happens Now?
The WHO have said that e-cigarettes are to be licensed and fully regulated from 2016, at which point, if they pass all of the regulations, they will be prescribed as a genuine aid to quitting smoking.

But is this enough? In a study of young people who use e-cigarettes in Cheshire and Merseyside, 31% said that they had either never smoked before or didn’t like normal cigarettes, where as e-cigarettes had nice flavours. This shows that the different flavours and hype surrounding e-cigarettes is attracting people who would not ordinarily have smoked. E-cigarettes have already been banned in Canada, Brazil and Singapore for this reason.

The director of professional activities for the BMA, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, has said that children were beginning to use e-cigarettes as a direct result of advertising campaigns- something which is banned for regular cigarettes. So again, this is something that needs to be looked at.

On a Lighter Note…
Students at Lincoln University have created an app for the iPhone which works with e-cigarettes to help people to quit smoking. Although they know that e-cigarettes are not yet regulated, they believe that their app would be used for good, helping people to quit smoking by reducing the amount of nicotine they would inhale with each cigarette.

The project is called ‘Relieve’ and would connect the electronic cigarette to an iPhone via Bluetooth, so that the app could reduce the strength of nicotine the smoker was getting. The app would also chart the smoker’s progress, showing them how much longer they had to go before they would be free of nicotine: this type of encouragement from a smoking cessation nurse has been shown to help people to quite. The app also tells the user how much money they have saved, and how much their risk of a heart attack had dropped!

This project really does show how electronic cigarettes can in fact be used for good, and it’s no wonder that they won the Vodafone 24 Createathon, earning the students an iPad each and an internship with Vodafone.




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