You might assume that e-cigarettes were a much healthier option than their non-electronic counterparts, simply because you inhale vapor and not smoke from burning tobacco. After all, each year more than 400,000 Americans die from tobacco-related ailments. Remove this exposure by switching to e-cigarettes, then, and every single one of these lives can be saved, right? Well, not necessarily.
Still, people have taken up “vaping” in droves. For instance, a recent poll revealed that 13.4 percent of U.S. high-school students had tried an e-cigarette within the last month. This was more than the number who’d tried an actual cigarette.
There’s the “cool” factor, sure, but vapers also believe that, because they’re no longer consuming the tar and harmful chemicals found in cigarettes, they’re less likely to develop heart disease or cancer. What’s more, and perhaps just as important to many vapers, e-cigarettes still provide them with that addictive nicotine hit.
These assumptions are backed, to a certain extent, by various studies. In August 2015, for example, Public Health England published a review concluding that e-cigarettes are “around 95 percent less harmful than tobacco.” Such expert-backed findings might not, however, tell the full story.
Indeed, in December 2015, just a few months after Public Health England’s report was released, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health discovered something potentially game-changing. In fact, it found that the majority of e-cigarettes contain something that causes an incurable lung condition.
The condition is called bronchiolitis obliterans, but it’s better known as “Popcorn Lung.” This is not because it results in popcorn-like growths, but rather because the first people to develop it were workers at popcorn-making plants. The workers had, it transpired, breathed in a man-made butter flavor, and this flavoring and the flavoring found in many e-cigarettes have something particularly nasty in common.
In fact, the Harvard researchers discovered that more than three quarters of flavored refill liquids and e-cigarettes contain diacetyl, the chemical that’s been linked to the onset of Popcorn Lung. To be precise, of the 51 flavored cigarettes and refill solutions analyzed, evidence of diacetyl was detected in 39.
This could be seriously bad news for vapers, especially considering how nasty Popcorn Lung is. After all, the condition is characterized by the narrowing of the lung’s bronchioles – the small branches that facilitate airflow – and can be life-threatening.
Furthermore, those who develop it find that they start to run out of breath more easily than normal. Plus, this shallowness of breath, which is later joined by an especially dry cough, gradually gets worse. For this reason, then, Popcorn Lung is often confused with bronchitis or asthma.
The condition is also irreversible, and the only way to treat the severest cases of bronchiolitis obliterans is for the patient to undergo a full-blown lung transplant. Even then, it’s possible that the condition will return if the person’s body rejects the donated lung. So in this case, prevention is certainly better than the cure.
The dangers of diacetyl aren’t, however, widely known – partly because its link to Popcorn Lung was only established a little over a decade ago. Moreover, e-cigarettes and flavorings themselves are a relatively recent phenomenon. Indeed, the few studies surrounding e-cigarettes have largely concentrated on nicotine.
David Christiani, the co-author of the Harvard School of Public Health’s study, explained that this focus on nicotine meant “there is still much we do not know about e-cigarettes.” What’s more, the professor added that diacetyl isn’t the only harmful substance vapers are unwittingly consuming.
“In addition to containing varying levels of the addictive substance nicotine, [e-cigarettes] also contain other cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde,” he commented. Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is typically found in industrial resins, though it’s also used in the production of animal feeds.
Despite Christiani and his colleagues’ findings, however, it’s highly unlikely that there will be manufacturing changes to e-cigarettes and their 7,000 flavors. This is because, currently, they’re not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, even though their usage is becoming increasingly widespread.
If the researchers’ warnings continue to go unheeded, though, it may also be down to their findings being challenged. For example, Rolling Stone writer David Amsden said that the Harvard School of Public Health’s conclusions may blur people’s understanding of e-cigarettes and any potential dangers they harbor.
Amsden wrote that regular cigarettes have also been shown to contain diacetyl – and “at levels over 100 times those found in electronic cigarettes.” Additionally, he said, “Yet earlier tobacco studies found that even these levels were not enough to cause ‘Popcorn Lung’ in smokers.”
Other critics of the Harvard findings certainly haven’t minced their words either. Speaking to Amsden, Professor Michael Siegel of Boston University’s School of Public Health, explained that the “study is a perfect example of something that happens over and over.”
“It creates a scare by omitting a key piece of information,” he added. “[This has the effect of] undermining the public’s appreciation of the severe hazards of tobacco smoking, and leading to perverse public health outcomes.”
Professor Siegel is someone whose opinions carry weight. After all, the physician, who specializes in tobacco control, has spent many years battling tobacco manufacturers. And while he was initially unsure about e-cigarettes, he now recognizes that they should be treated by the U.S. government as cigarettes’ safer substitute.
His general advice seems to be, then, that e-cigarettes are an acceptable option if they’re used by smokers trying to quit cigarettes – even though using them may come with certain risks. If you’re a non-smoker, though, think twice about taking up vaping. After all, you’ll not only be at an increased risk, however small, of Popcorn Lung, but you may also be tempted to take up smoking proper – and there’s no argument about that not being bad for your health.