Even though we know now that vaping is harmful and addictive, it's still thought to be healthier than smoking cigarettes, for the simple reason that e-cigarettes are assumed to contain far fewer chemicals than tobacco cigarettes, which are estimated to contain 7,000 chemicals or more. But e-cigarettes are not safe. Now a study reported in JAMA Pediatrics has determined that it only takes a single 30-minute session of vaping to increase oxidative stress in the immune cells of healthy people.
Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance in the very reactive chemicals in the body known as free radicals or reactive oxygen species (ROS), and cellular mechanisms like antioxidants that can neutralize them. ROS are normal byproducts of cellular processes and can be important to physiology, but if they accumulate they can lead to tissue damage and disease. Oxidative stress has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and many other disorders.
In this small study, 32 volunteers aged 21 to 33 were put in three groups based on their habits; eleven people were nonsmokers, nine smoked tobacco regularly, and twelve smoked e-cigarettes regularly. Immune cells were collected from the participants before and after a 30-minute vaping session, and another control session in which the volunteers puffed on a straw and air. The researchers assessed the levels of oxidative stress in the cells, and then compared them among the groups.
The research indicated that oxidative stress levels were twice to four times as high after nonsmokers vaped compared to before vaping. However, this increase was not seen in the regular smokers of either e-cigarettes or regular cigarettes. The study authors suggested that the baseline levels of oxidative stress are already high in the smokers and vapers.
“We were surprised by the gravity of the effect that one vaping session can have on healthy young people. This brief vaping session was not dissimilar to what they may experience at a party, yet the effects were dramatic," noted the senior study author, Dr. Holly Middlekauff, a professor of cardiology and physiology at UCLA.
Vaping continues to increase in popularity especially among teens and young adults, making the results particularly troubling, said the researchers.
More research will be needed to determine why oxidative stress rises, and whether it's due to nicotine or something else. Middlekauff's team is planning to pursue that question.
“While there’s a perception that e-cigarettes are safer than tobacco cigarettes, these findings show clearly and definitively that there is no safe level of vaping,” Middlekauff said. “The results are clear, unambiguous and concerning.”