In this way, vaping is worse than normal tobacco cigarettes. indigolotos/Shutterstock

E-cigarettes are quickly becoming the smoking apparatus of choice, having been aggressively marketed as both an alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes and as a way for smokers to give up their nicotine addiction. As the debate on the potential adverse health effects of vaping continues to rage, a study by the University of North Carolina suggests that they cause harm by suppressing users’ immune systems.

This new research, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. this week, was led by lona Jaspers, the university’s professor of pediatrics and director of the curriculum in toxicology. 

Her team of researchers looked at tissue samples from within the nasal cavity of smokers, non-smokers, and e-cigarette users (“vapers”). They were specifically assessing the health of the cavity’s epithelial cells, a common tissue type found all over the body. Within these cells, over 600 genes involved in the immune system were analyzed. Nasal fluid, urine, and blood samples were also taken from the participants.

Although the team found that smoking tobacco cigarettes suppressed key immune system-related genes, they also observed that vaping has the same effect. The fact that vaping also appears to suppress hundreds of additional immune genes means that, in this sense, vaping could be worse than smoking. 

Curiously, e-cigarettes that contained the chemical responsible for producing a cinnamon-like flavor were the worst, significantly hampering immune cells present in the nose. At present, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies these types of flavoring agents as “generally recognized as safe” for oral consumption; however, these chemicals appear to have a different effect when inhaled through vaping, although the reasons behind this are currently unclear. 

A commonly used vaping device. Oleg GawriloFF/Shutterstock

Several types of white blood cells, including natural killer cells that target tumors and infections, were also hindered from operating normally by these cinnamon flavoring chemicals. This compromised immune function in the nasal cavity, said Jasper, could lead to a cascade of impaired immune functions within the lungs – although, for now, this concept remains the subject of future research.

Despite a recent sales slump, the vaping market is projected to be worth over $21.7 billion by the end of 2018. As well as taking advantage of the fact that increasingly stringent rules are being imposed on normal cigarettes, vaping sales have likely been boosted by the perception that it’s far less dangerous to the user, primarily for two reasons.

Firstly, a single cartridge of e-liquid can contain considerably lower concentrations of nicotine than a regular cigarette, meaning that they can be far less addictive. Secondly, and most importantly, the cartridges do not contain the carcinogenic products that normal cigarettes are packed with, including tar and arsenic.

A recent U.K. study agreed with this perception: it concluded that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than tobacco cigarettes. This new study, however, highlights the fact that using e-cigarettes is anything but risk-free.

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