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E-cigarettes, smoking and the brain – the facts

Another story has hit headlines questioning the safety of vaping yesterday, suggesting a link between e-cigarette use and brain damage, even going as far as to suggest banning vaping. Scientists have been quick to point out the short falls of the research and why these findings should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The research

The research was conducted by the University Medical Center in Mainz, Germany and consisted of a study of 151 mice, with an additional short-term study on 20 human smokers. They identified a stiffening of the arteries when testing 15 minutes after the use of an e-cigarette and extrapolated that this could then cause damage to the blood vessels in the brain. However, scientists that were uninvolved with the research have been quick to criticise the research, with many implying it is based on ‘basic’ and misleading science.

For starters, all of the human participants were smokers, but the research made no attempt to compare the results to those of smoking a cigarette, or include any participants who are non-smokers. We are already aware that nicotine can stiffen the arteries and can cause damage to the blood vessels, and the study uses nicotine containing e-liquids with no comparison to nicotine free e-liquids.

John Britton, Director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies expresses the need for a wider comparison before results can be considered accurate;

“This study cannot tell us which of these effects are due to the nicotine in the vapour, and which (if any) are due to other vapour components. We know nicotine constricts the blood vessels, and is obviously essential if e-cigs are to be effective as a replacement for smoking. So we need to know whether any of these changes happen with no nicotine in the vapour, which we can’t tell from this study.”

Why could this be damaging to vaping?

These kinds of stories could potentially deter smokers from making the switch to vaping, by perpetuating the incorrect perception that using an e-cigarette could be just as harmful as smoking. It could also lead current e-cig users to discontinue use and risk reverting back to smoking, increasing their risk of potentially life-threatening smoking related Illness.

There were far too many factors in this research which could have affected the findings, meaning a connection between the results and e-cigarette use is not actually proven. This is perfectly summarised by Dr Gavin Sandercock, Reader in Clinical Physiology (Cardiology) and Director of Research at University of Essex, in his statement;

“The human work [in this study] is complicated by the fact the people were current smokers so we can’t tell how much of the observed effect could be down to smoking-related damage. All the effects vaping had on the human smokers were short-term changes we know happen when nicotine enters the body; by smoking cigarettes, vaping, using patches or gum – they are not specific to vaping.”

No one has ever claimed that vaping is 100% risk free, we know that nicotine can cause these problems but by making the switch from smoking to vaping people are cutting out the countless other toxic chemicals and carcinogens found in cigarettes, such as carbon monoxide and tar. It is for this reason that health authorities such as Public Health England have found vaping to be 95% less harmful than smoking and endorse e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to smoking.

Chief Executive of ASH, Deborah Arnott, expresses the true insignificance of these findings, but the damage they could do to the reputation of vaping by saying;

“The short-term effects of e-cigarettes on arterial stiffness are very similar to drinking coffee, taking exercise or watching horror movies. While vaping isn’t risk free, it’s much less risky than smoking, which kills over 250 people a day in the UK. Vapers shouldn’t be scared back to smoking – that would be a real public health tragedy.”

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