“A toxicological experiment:” Additional study needed on e-cigarettes use

Photo by Itay Kabalo

Although the market for e-cigarettes is booming, scientists and health agencies are still debating the extent of their health impacts. Basic questions remain: What chemicals are in the vapor cloud produced by e-cigarettes? And how does this vapor affect users and those around them?

A research team led by Hugo Destaillats, PhD, a chemist in the Indoor Environment Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, is seeking the answers to these questions.

Destaillats and his colleagues have studied the complex chemical composition of vaping aerosols, the cloud of particles the devices emit. In one study, they quantified emissions from three e-liquids with various vaporizers, battery power settings and vaping habits — ranging from heavy to low puff duration and frequency.

The researchers found 31 potentially toxic substances in the vapors, including two not previously detected: propylene oxide in the e-liquids and glycidol in the vapors. Both of these compounds are considered probable carcinogens. They also determined that the base fluids used in vaping, propylene glycol and glycerin, can decompose when heated to produce acrolein, a powerful irritant.

However, the level of these toxins varied depending on the type of e-cigarette and how it was operated. For instance, toxic emissions rates were higher for e-cigarettes with a single heating coil compared to ones with double coils. Toxin levels also increased with the voltage used to power the device. And they rose with repeated use, presumably due to a buildup of residue within the device.

“We hope that one outcome of our research has been to provide useful information to manufacturers to help them improve the safety of their devices,” said Destaillats in a recent article in Analytical Scientist. .

In a follow-up study, the researchers assessed the health impact of firsthand and secondhand exposure to these vapor clouds under various typical use conditions. The integrated health damage from vaping for the various scenarios was lower than, or comparable to, the estimated damage from tobacco smoke, they concluded.

Given the countless unique e-liquid flavors and the on-going development of new devices, this research is difficult to generalize, they said, but they are concerned that more unidentified toxins exist.

Destaillats summarized in the article:

“Vaping is effectively a toxicological experiment being carried out with millions of people around the world.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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Using history as a guide to end tobacco addiction

Photo courtesy of Robert Proctor

The public’s opinion of tobacco use has dramatically changed over time. Gone are the days when cigarette companies advertise using slogans like “fresh as mountain air” or “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” We now know that cigarettes cause blindness and tuberculosis, among many other conditions, and are highly addictive.

But in the era of nicotine e-cigarettes that are touted as cool and harmless, have we really changed our ways? I spoke with Robert Proctor, PhD, a professor of history at Stanford, to learn about his work.

What inspired you to research the history of cigarette design?

“Cigarettes are the world’s leading preventable cause of death, killing about 6 million people worldwide every year.  A physician might hope to heal a thousand or perhaps ten thousand people over a career, but what if we could save these 6 million people annually?  It was this hope of saving lives that led to my exploring how cigarettes have been designed, and how they might be stopped.”

Where do you find your research materials?

“The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library is a real treasure.  I use it to explore the industry’s myriad secret projects — like Project Subculture Urban Marketing, a secret Reynolds campaign from the 1990s to target gays and the homeless in San Francisco.  I also use it to find out what they’ve been adding to cigarettes—like diammonium phosphate, a free-basing agent used to boost the potency of the nicotine molecule. I also use it to find out who has been working for the industry, as grantees or expert witnesses. Historically that included dozens of Stanford professors, but I don’t know any still working in that capacity today.”

What do you think about the FDA’s plan to reduce nicotine in cigarettes?

“As I explained in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, the Food and Drug Administration will try to mandate the reduction of nicotine in cigarettes to a sub-addictive level. However, they will encounter ferocious resistance from the industry, which sees nicotine as the indispensable ingredient of their business. For beginning smokers, nicotine is actually a negative in the smoking experience. Once addicted, most smokers regret having started. It will be crucial for the FDA to reduce nicotine sufficiently to make sure new users don’t become addicted. De-nicotinization is easy. Multiple techniques are available to achieve this, including genetic technologies and some of the same techniques used to de-caffeinate coffee.”

Have you also studied e-cigarettes?

“I have studied e-cigarettes but not as intensively. Many of the same techniques once used to market traditional cigarettes have been revived for e-cigarettes and other vaping devices, as Robert Jackler, MD, and his colleagues have shown so beautifully. E-cigarettes may help some smokers quit, but they are more likely to renormalize smoking and act as gateways to regular cigarettes. They also serve as bridge products to keep smokers from quitting nicotine entirely, which is why the big cigarette makers have all launched new vaping devices.”

What more can be done?

“Physicians often know the right thing to do, but may not have the power to make that happen — that is medical impotence.  A third of all cancer deaths, for example, are caused by cigarettes. Just knowing that, though, isn’t enough to do any good, since there are powerful forces dedicated to making sure we keep pulling smoke into our lungs. Much more could be done to solve such problems — the new age minima for purchasing cigarettes should help. I also believe we need to explore what I call ‘the causes of causes.’  Cigarette smoking causes disease, but what causes cigarette smoking?  Too often we end with the individual, rather than going upstream to the source of the problem in the first place. Stop the manufacture of cigarettes, for example, and you stop having to yank out tumors from lungs or putting people on oxygen. We need more upstream thinking in the practice of medicine.

We also need to think more about health in our own community. For instance, Stanford got a failing grade from the Santa Clara County Public Health Department in 2011 as the most cigarette-friendly campus in the Bay area — for allowing the sale and use of cigarettes on campus.  We did finally manage get the sale of cigarettes in the student union stopped, after years of painful protest.”

 

Editor’s note: Stanford has a smoke-free environment policy that prohibits smoking in all buildings, facilities, vehicles, covered walkways and during indoor or outdoor athletic events. Smoking has been banned on the School of Medicine campus for a decade. 

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

 

What you need to know about e-cigarettes

 

Photo by 1503849
Photo by 1503849

E-cigarettes are extremely popular with millions of middle and high school students across the United States. Kids love the flavors — like strawberry, bubble gum, chocolate cake and cotton candy — and blowing vapor into rings. And, they are inundated with ads that tout e-cigarettes as cool, harmless alternatives to cigarettes.

But, not surprisingly, e-cigarettes aren’t really safe. A recent University of California news story outlines ten important facts about e-cigarettes, including how they can harm your health.

One of the biggest health concerns is that e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is addictive and can lead to the use of traditional cigarettes. “A lot of kids who take up [nicotine-free] vaping are at low risk for smoking, but once they start using e-cigarettes, they are three to four times more likely to start using cigarettes,” said Stanton Glantz, PhD, a tobacco researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, in the article.

In addition, e-cigarettes can contain other harmful ingredients, including:

  • Ultrafine particles that can trigger inflammatory problems and lead to heart and lung disease
  • Toxic flavorings that are linked to serious lung disease
  • Volatile organic compounds
  • Heavy metals, such as nickel, tin and lead

Stanford’s Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, a developmental psychologist who has studied tobacco use, also commented in the piece:

“Youth are definitely using e-cigarettes because they think they are cool… Adolescents and young adults don’t know a lot about e-cigarettes. They think it’s just water or water vapor. They don’t understand it’s an aerosol. They don’t understand that e-cigarettes can have nicotine. They don’t understand that flavorants themselves can be harmful.”

Furthermore, when e-cigarette users exhale the mainstream vapor containing these toxins, they can cause secondhand health effects.

The article discusses other hazards as well, including the possibility of battery explosion, and the products’ mixed record on helping smokers quit. It concluded with a call for more research to better understand the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.