The electronic cigarette industry has exploded over the past few years, with sales in the United States climbing by a massive 2,000% in just four years. While often assumed to be much healthier than smoking regular cigarettes, due to the infancy of the technology there is simply no data as to the long-term effects on human health. This has caused a massive rift to form between proponents of e-cigarettes and those against them.
New research, published in Toxicology in Vitro, appears to demonstrate that the vapor produced by e-cigarettes has no cytotoxic, or cell killing, effect on human airway tissue, having a similar effect to that of air. This is the first study to look at the effect of e-cig vapor on in vitro models that so closely mimic human airway tissue.
“By employing a combination of a smoking robot and a lab-based test using respiratory tissue, it was possible to demonstrate the ability to induce and measure aerosol irritancy and to show that the different e-cigarette aerosols used in this study have no cytotoxic effect on human airway tissue,” explained spokesperson Dr. Marina Murphy.
But there’s a catch: The research was conducted by British American Tobacco. One of the five biggest tobacco companies in the world – selling a staggering 667 billion cigarettes in 2014 alone – this hasn’t stopped them moving into the e-cigarette market. To muddy the waters further, a study released earlier this year claims to have found that e-cigs could in fact harm people's lungs and make them more susceptible to respiratory infections.
The confusion surrounding e-cigarettes and the real or perceived health implications is reflected in how governments are dealing with the rise of the technology. While some countries, such as Argentina, have banned their use altogether, other such as Wales are treating them exactly the same as regular cigarettes and banning them in all public places. And for many regions, there are simply no restrictions at all. The main concern is that the industry is completely unregulated, and no medical licenses have ever been issued for e-cigarettes, as they have for nicotine replacement treatments such as patches or gum.
Even among health charities and think tanks, opinion is divided. While the British Medical Association are for a ban in public places, Cancer Research UK are against it. The health problems behind the product might not be easy to decipher, but what is clear is that more independent research is needed.