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Are e-cigarettes safe?

E-cigarettes are becoming increasingly popular yet are often at the centre of controversy. There are debates about whether they should be banned in public places and questions about their long term safety. Michael Mosley sets out to cut through the hype and find out: are e-cigarettes safe?

Smoking burns tobacco to release a large dose of addictive nicotine quickly. But nicotine isn’t the problem: smoking also releases a cocktail of around 4000 other toxic chemicals which increase the risk of cancer, heart disease and other serious illnesses.

To get an idea of how vaping and smoking affect the body Michael tested a group of normal cigarette smokers and a group of people who use e-cigarettes. They gave samples of saliva, urine and breath to be analysed for levels of different chemicals.

The test results

Nicotine is the addictive chemical in cigarettes. We found that vapers get a similar dose of nicotine to smokers, meaning that E-cigarettes could provide a viable alternative for smokers who are addicted to nicotine.

Carbon monoxide is a harmful chemical which is associated with heart disease and acrolein is another nasty chemical associated with cancer and lung problems. The vapers we tested had significantly lower levels of these harmful chemicals than the smokers group. In fact these levels were similar to those found in non-smokers: evidence that e-cigarettes could be less harmful than cigarettes.

Importantly, the results of our very small test do reflect those of larger and more comprehensive studies.

Michael met Prof Peter Hajek, the director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London. He believes that e-cigarettes, used as an aid to stop smoking, have the potential to eradicate smoking-related disease and death on the population scale.

There is concern that as e-cigarettes are new, the effects of some of the chemicals they contain are unknown and could turn out to be harmful in the long term.

E-cigarettes can be addictive as it’s the nicotine in them that can cause dependency. There’s also a fear that the widespread use of e-cigarettes will normalise the consumption of nicotine, undoing the social changes which resulted from the smoking ban and making smoking socially acceptable once more. The British Medical Association is calling for a ban in public places.

From 2016 some e-cigarettes will be licensed and regulated as medicines. This will depend on whether they make any health claims such as saying they’ll help you stop smoking or if they contain more than 20mg/ml of nicotine. Products which don’t fall into either category will be controlled under consumer products legislation.

What are e cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are electronic devices which heat up a cartridge of liquid to form a vapour which can be inhaled.

The vapour contains a hit of the addictive chemical nicotine along with flavours and other chemicals.

At present e-cigarettes aren’t regulated and so the exact contents of the vapour will vary between brands. Using e-cigarettes is known as ‘vaping’ and it is very different from smoking.