Vaping – the use of e-cigarettes – is believed by many scientists and medical professionals to be safer than smoking, although there is conflicting research on the risks of vaping and the potential long-term effects. Vaping involves the inhalation of an aerosol containing nicotine and flavoring agents rather than smoke generated by burning tobacco.
Since there are fewer carcinogens and other harmful chemicals in vaping liquid, some scientists and medical professional believe it to be a safer alternative to smoking and useful as a quitting tool for short term use. It should be noted that smoking is proven to cause permanent damage to cells and that means that vaping is believed to be less harmful than one of the leading causes of premature death.
Vaping has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks following a spate of vaping-related deaths in the United States, the cause of which is not yet fully understood. Vaping was a common factor, but other links between the deaths have not yet been established. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now investigating more than 100 cases of young, otherwise healthy vapers who have contracted sudden, often fatal, lung diseases.
Now new research has been published which suggests vaping may even be just as harmful as smoking. The research showed vaping causes cellular responses similar to those caused by smoking tobacco: Changes that have previously been established to increase the risk of developing emphysema, the most severe form of Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disorder (COPD).
To assess the harmful effects of vaping, the researchers performed bronchoscopies and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) to collect fluid from the lungs which was then analyzed to measure the level of three different proteases – eutrophil elastase and matrix metalloproteases 2 and 9. Those proteases – enzymes that breach down proteins – have previously been linked to emphysema and bronchiectasis. The proteases are produced by immune cells and have previously been shown to travel to the lungs in response to the presence of cigarette smoke, and more specifically, nicotine.
Over time, the proteases can damage the alveoli in the lungs, where gas exchange takes place. That damage reduces the efficiency of gas exchange and can lead to breathlessness and the development of chronic emphysema.
Samples of fluid were taken from 14 smokers and 14 vapers who had not previously smoked tobacco. All samples contained high levels of all three of the proteases.
An analysis was conducted to determine the amount of nicotine present in BAL and sputum (mucus) taken from vapers shortly after vaping. The researchers treated lab-cultured immune cells with the fluids and found the levels of nicotine were sufficient to trigger the release of high levels of the proteases. The higher the concentration of nicotine, the more proteases were released.
While the number of participants in the study was relatively low, the findings back up those of other studies, which have also shown high levels of these immune system defense proteins following vaping. Previous research has also shown that vaping liquids also contain a range of chemicals that are harmful to the health and are not as ‘clean’ as many people think.
The study is detailed in the paper – Chronic E-Cigarette Use Increases Neutrophil Elastase and Matrix Metalloprotease Levels in the Lung – were published in the journal American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine – DOI: 10.1164/rccm.201903-0615OC