The health risks posed by smoking tobacco are well documented and widely known, and methods of quitting the habit are numerous. With the rise in popularity of electronic cigarettes, some smokers concerned about their health have turned to their use to help wean themselves off harmful tobacco use. However, questions remain: are e-cigarettes any safer than tobacco? Can they help undo the damage smoking does to the body?

E-Cigarettes Versus Tobacco

Tobacco products are primarily derived from dried tobacco leaves, with additives included improving the flavor and texture of smoking. The smoke from these products contains numerous carcinogens—chemicals that can cause cancer—released or created by burning tobacco. Here are the main carcinogens found in most smokable tobacco products:

  • Nicotine is the most well-known, being the addictive compound in tobacco as well as having plenty of harmful effects
  • Dangerous organic and nitrogen compounds
  • Heavy metals
  • Radioactive elements that tobacco plants take in from soil and fertilizers
  • Tar residue from cigarette smoke also clogs and degrades the lungs

In contrast, e-cigarettes use cartridges of e-liquid, which is vaporized by a heated coil during use. The composition of e-liquid is fairly simple: propylene glycol and glycerol (also called glycerin) make up the solvent in which flavorings and, optionally, nicotine are dissolved. While research is ongoing regarding e-liquids and health risks, some results have already been demonstrated. electronic cigarette vs tobacco cigarettes
Image Credit: Shutterstock/Rain Ungert

E-Liquid and Your Health

The solvents propylene glycol and glycerol, long used as food additives, are both classified as “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. Studies on propylene glycol and similar compounds indicate that they are non-toxic at expected levels of consumption. While some research points out that these solvents can produce formaldehyde when vaporized, the amount of formaldehyde produced was found to be negligible by the CDC in a 2016 study. On the other hand, e-liquids that contain nicotine should not be used outside of attempts to quit smoking, as nicotine itself can damage the cardiovascular system.

While flavoring additives are generally safe when ingested, some are dangerous if inhaled as vapor. One major example is diacetyl, used in artificial butter flavoring; inhaled, diacetyl can cause bronchiolitis obliterans, an irreversible lung disease also called “popcorn lung” that was discovered in workers at a manufacturing plant handling microwave popcorn. Research suggests other particular flavors of e-liquid such as cinnamon and vanilla carry this risk as well, though testing has only taken place with animals or isolated cell cultures. Still, avoiding these flavors can mitigate these health risks, though the lack of FDA oversight on flavor additives used this way presents concerns for those unsure of what their e-liquid contains.

An Anti-Smoking Aid?

As the theory goes, e-cigs using nicotine-containing liquid, when used as a substitute for tobacco cigarettes, can help wean smokers off their habit without risking a relapse by mimicking the physical actions of smoking while allowing users to steadily decrease the nicotine content used. Like any means of quitting, this can prevent further damage done to the body and permit recovery. Some studies on long-term smokers that use e-cigs as a replacement demonstrate such a recovery when compared to control groups, though small sample sizes make a strong conclusion difficult. Conversely, though, surveys of smokers within the population indicate that, while many adults have attempted to quit using e-cigs, some fall back onto “dual-use” of both e-cigs and tobacco, which provides little benefit.

Making the Switch

As e-cigarettes are still relatively new, the precise health effects of their use have yet to be fully concluded—apart from demonstrating that they pose less of a hazard than tobacco, studies are conflicted on just how effective e-cigs are for breaking the habit. That said, many still attest to the aid they provide. If you’re a smoker and looking to quit, e-cigarettes are worth a try. VaporFi offers tobacco-flavored e-liquids to help ease the transition for smokers of all walks of life.

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