A New Cancer Study Found E-Cigarettes Affect Cells the Same As Tobacco Smoke

Nicotine may not be as dangerous as tobacco, but it's not off the hook.

Image: Linsay Fox/Flickr

Electronic cigarettes have taken a pounding in the press lately. First there was the revelation that the liquid nicotine in the device is poisonous and potentially deadly if consumed. Then there was the horrifying story of an e-cig exploding in a bar in the UK—not the first time this has happened.

Now to cap it off, one of the first studies to look at the biological effects of the digital nicotine sticks found "striking similarities" between the effect of vaporized e-liquid and tobacco smoke on human cells. Further study is needed, but the similarity suggests vaping could increase the risk of cancer, despite being tobacco-free.

"They may be safer [than tobacco], but our preliminary studies suggest that they may not be benign,” said study author Avrum Spira, a genomics and lung cancer researcher at Boston University. The study was published in Nature and presented at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting this week.

Researchers studied bronchial cells in a culture medium. They found that when the cells were exposed to e-cig vapor containing nicotine they showed similar gene mutations as the cells exposed to tobacco smoke, and determined to be at risk of becoming cancerous.

The next step is to test the genes altered by e-cig vapor to see if they too show potential carcinogenicity.

It's just the latest study complicating the controversial question of over whether e-cigs should be embraced as a healthier alternative to traditional smokes or banned outright. The answer to that largely hangs on a more specific question: Is nicotine itself a carcinogen, or is it just the super-addictive delivery system for the more toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke?

Research on the health effects of vaping is still in early phases, so there’s no conclusive answer just yet. But previous studies have found that nicotine can, at least, promote or exacerbate certain types of cancer. At the moment, general perception in the medical community is that it's not the most dangerous toxin in tobacco, but it's not off the hook either.

Which doesn't help much for the moral quandary health experts find themselves in when it comes to e-cigs. Are they OK because they're less dangerous than traditional cigarettes, even if they're still a little dangerous?

Spira said more research is needed. "These studies will determine the impact of e-cig exposure on lung carcinogenicity and provide needed scientific guidance to the FDA regarding the physiologic effects of e-cigs."

Amid all the uncertainty, the Food and Drug Administration has taken its sweet time regulating the controversial gadgets, which have since skyrocketed from a novelty device to a booming billion-dollar industry. Absent any federal guidelines, e-cigs are being marketed willy nilly—to kids, as a smoking cessation product, with no quality control.

A growing collection of states have taken it upon themselves to ban the digital cigarettes in the meantime, but vaping’s Wild West days could be coming to an end. FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg said last week that the agency is "pushing very hard" to complete a proposed rule for how to regulate e-cigs, and expects to present it "very soon."