Many media reports about a University of Athens study from 2012 give the impression that vapor cigarettes cause just as much lung damage as traditional cigarettes do.
While we maintain that vapor cigarettes are likely a safer alternative to “lighting up,” we remain very cautious and understand that long-term research is needed to determine what, if any, effects e-smoking has on the user’s health.
The study these media reports are referring to came from the University of Athens in Greece. The goal according to researchers was to study the short term effects of using a vapor cigarette.
Participants were broken into group – non-smokers, smokers and people with chronic conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Each were asked to use a vapor cigarette for 10 minutes, after which several tests measuring airway resistance were administered, including a spirometry test.
The tests showed that both healthy smokers and non-smokers using the vapor e-cig showed a fairly significant, yet temporary, increase in airway resistance. The participants with asthma or COPD showed no discernable increase.
While some of the media reports and the study’s abstract make the claim that airway resistance translates into lung damage, Dr. Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health says not so fast.
For starters, an increase in airway resistance can happen in a variety of situations, including breathing hot, humid air. Now certainly, smoking a regular cigarette over a long period of time can increase airway inflammation and ultimately lead to lung damage. However, the study results showed a temporary increase, which Dr. Siegel believes is caused by the propylene glycol in the vapor.
Once the irritation is gone, the airways return to normal.
Dr. Siegel also takes issue with media claims that vapor cigarettes lower the level of oxygen in the blood, a condition known as hypoxemia. The study didn’t even measure oxygen levels in the blood. And according to Dr. Siegel, a mild increase in airway resistance doesn’t lead to hypoxemia. If increased airway resistance had this effect, millions of people in Florida and other humid climates would suffer from this condition.
While it is true that more study is needed to determine the long-term effects of vapor cigarettes, we can’t conclusively say that e-smoking harms the lungs, at least in the short-term.
Perhaps the media took the abstract’s title and ran with it since the findings clearly demonstrate a temporary increase in airway resistance. But as Dr. Siegel points out, this doesn’t necessarily translate into lung damage.