Over the past couple of days many national media outlets have covered a study by researchers at New York University, which claims vaping raises the risk of lung and bladder cancer, and may cause heart disease. The study provides no evidence of an increased risk of cancer or heart disease for users of electronic cigarettes, although the headlines read Vaping Causes Cancer.
The reporting of these conclusions is irresponsible. According to Dr Jasmine Just from Cancer Research UK:
“The evidence so far shows that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking. Research like this is important, but this lab study only looked at the effects of e-cigarette smoke on cells and on mice, which means it’s not possible to draw any conclusions from this about how e-cigarettes might affect people in real life.
Up to two-thirds of long term smokers will die because of their addiction, but e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco. Instead they contain nicotine, which is what keeps people addicted, but is not responsible for the major health harms from smoking. Research in people has shown that those who make a complete switch from smoking tobacco to e-cigarettes can significantly reduce their exposure to key harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke.”
Other research has already refuted the conclusions this study makes, and it is another example of misinformation that only harms smokers who may be put off switching to vaping which is a much safer alternative to smoking.
In New York University’s study mice were exposed to very high levels of nicotine containing vapour. The researchers hypothesised the observed DNA damage and inhibition of DNA repair in the mice was a result of nicotine metabolism to Tobacco Specific Nitrosamines (TSNAs). As Professor Robert West from University College London made clear:
“It is not nicotine that kills you when you smoke tobacco, almost all the harm from smoking comes from the deadly cocktail of chemicals in tobacco smoke. Indeed, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have ruled that long term use of nicotine is not detrimental to the health of the user.”
This laboratory study does not provide any data on the relative risk of vaping. The research investigated the effect of high dose nicotine containing vapour on in vitro cell cultures and animal models. Such preliminary data cannot be used to extrapolate any meaningful conclusions on how exposure to e-cig vapour might affect vapers in real life.
No comparison studies were made by exposing the mice to tobacco smoke under identical conditions. The researchers acknowledge recent studies demonstrating e-cigarette users, similar to individuals on nicotine replacement therapy, have 97 % less TSNA metabolites in their body fluid than tobacco smokers. However, they adopt an absolute risk approach when speculating on a link between nicotine containing aerosol damaging DNA and increasing the risk of cancer in humans.
The completed study looks to be at best, a guess. Utilising many other previous studies and very little actual research. It actually concentrates more on the properties of nicotine with a tenuous link to vaping, what it does not prove is that vaping cause’s cancer.
Peter Hajek, Director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University London said:
“This study shows nothing at all about the dangers of vaping. It doesn’t show that vaping causes cancer. This is one in a long line of false alarms which may be putting people off the switch from smoking to vaping which would undoubtedly be of great benefit to them,” he added. “The best current estimate is that vaping poses, at worst, some 5% of risks of smoking.”
The University of St Andrews recently put the cancer risk from vaping at just one per cent when compared to smoking. Similar research undertaken by Stabile and Buonanno put the cancer risk associated with vaping at more than 50,000-fold lower than smoking.
There is never a situation where it is better to smoke than it is to vape. Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that 99 per cent of UK vapers are adult current or former smokers. Therefore, when assessing any harm associated with vaping, it is not how harmful vaping is in and of itself, but how harmful vaping is when compared to smoking.
In 2015, Public Health England (PHE) and The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) concluded that vaping was at least 95 per cent less harmful than smoking. Vaping is also supported by The Royal College of General Practitioners, and many other independent medical and public health bodies, including Cancer Research UK, who are so concerned with misleading media reports regarding vaping that they are currently running a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the relative safety of vaping.
Fraser Cropper added:
“This is yet another example of the irresponsible and polemic journalism, aimed at vaping and its users that illustrates the principal reason why there is such a skewed and incorrect understanding of what vaping is. Out of context studies that, either directly or assisted by the media’s reporting, extrapolate nuanced and empirically misinterpreted ‘academic studies’ do not assist in informing smokers of the choices they have available to quit or reduce the enormous harm potential of smoking. The ability of vaping to transform societies’ smoking plague, is routinely undermined by this type of sinister and irresponsible reporting, which takes no account nor responsibility for the affect this misinformation brings.“