Do e-cigarettes contain 10 times more cancer causing ingredients than cigarettes?

This widely publicised headline that e-cigarettes have 10 times more cancer-causing ingredients than tobacco cigarettes is false. Tobacco contains more than 70 known cancer-causing substances, whereas e-cigarettes have only five or six ingredients. The Japanese research group that announced that finding have yet to publish their research – and might never do so. They say that one brand of e-cigarette  contain up to 10 times more formaldehyde (the delightful chemical that we use to embalm the dead) than normal cigarettes. The ’10 times’ claim flies in the face of all the published science to date. It does, however, suggest that there could be some poor quality brands putting vapers at risk.

When e-cigarettes first hit the market, they weren’t classified by governments under any guidelines (e.g. food or medicine) that required them to meet a certain standard for human use. As it stands in the UK, they don’t even have to be tested before being sold to the general public (although this is soon to change). E-cigarettes are largely unregulated in many countries, meaning that the market has become awash with poor quality brands and fake vapesSome have even been reported to explode in dramatic fashion while others allegedly contain high levels of cancer-causing chemicals. Which means that vaping-fans have to be savvy about the brand they choose. Even then, you could be taking a gamble as there are reports that cheap knock-offs are being sold as trusted brand.

Amidst all the smoke and confusion, some countries – such as the UK – will start classifying e-cigarettes as either medicinal products or tobacco products, meaning that they will have to undergo stringent testing before being sold. Elsewhere, in countries such as in Panama and Malaysia, nicotine-containing e-cigarettes have been outlawed completely. Hong Kong takes vaping extremely seriously and classifies them as a poison and being caught in possession carries a heavy fine and up to a 2-year jail sentence. The legislation around the world is so confusing, that you’ll need to to check the regulations in the in the countries you travel to with your vape – or you could land yourself in very hot water.

A 2015 report for Public Health England tried to blow some science into this political hot potato. It stated that e-cigarettes are ‘95% less harmful’ than smoking tobacco cigarettes. The report’s authors looked at several studies that found low levels of cancer-causing chemicals and were highly critical of studies that did find harmful effects of e-cigarettes. The ‘95% safer’ claim is quite mysterious however, as the original report gave practically no reasoning behind it. (The authors had to publish a note ‘explaining’ it.) Apparently, most of the harmful things in e-cigarettes are at 5% of the levels they are at in tobacco cigarettes…

Such a rose-tinted view of e-cigarettes is not shared by the doctors who recently published a meta-review in a famous Lancet journal. Analysing every piece of e-cigarette research published to date, they concluded that smoking e-cigarettes actually makes it harder to quit tobacco than going ‘cold turkey’. Which seems to defeat the object. Unless you vape purely to get your nicotine fix in the places where tobacco smoking is illegal, that is.

Despite the remaining uncertainty over their safety, some experts are even calling for e-cigarettes to prescribed by doctors on the back of that ‘95% safer’ report. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that ‘Big Tobacco’ is weighing in on the e-cigarette market and is behind many of the most popular brands. Unlike their cigarettes and cigars however, some tobacco companies are very keen for you to know about all the possible health risks, with back-of-packet warnings that are over 100 words long. After all, if you’re going to get people hooked on nicotine then you may as well do it with them understanding all the risks. Who’d have thought that after all this time the tobacco industry cared so much for our health?

Photo credit: Vaping360 via Flickr Creative Commons.

Article by Kate Timms

March 18, 2016

Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?


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