Still think e-cigarettes are harmless? Think again. The latest research into e-cigarettes say the nicotine in these smoking substitute is linked to increased arterial stiffness, a condition that precipitates heart attacks and strokes in later years.
The increasing popularity of e-cigarettes is fraught with controversy. On the one hand, manufacturers and fans say these devices pose less health risks because tobacco is cut out of the equation. On the other hand, some health experts think e-cigarettes could backfire in reducing a smoker’s motivation to quit. People in the latter camp also cite unknown health concerns of nicotine in e-cigarettes, even if tobacco isn’t present.
"The number of e-cigarette users has increased dramatically in the last few years. E-cigarettes are regarded by the general public as almost harmless. The e-cigarette industry markets their product as a way to reduce harm and to help people to stop smoking tobacco cigarettes. However, the safety of e-cigarettes is debated, and a growing body of evidence is suggesting several adverse health effects,” said Dr. Magnus Lundbäck, the lead researcher who presented the study at the 2017 European Respiratory Society International Congress.
To investigate how e-cigarettes affect the body’s circulatory system, Dr. Lundbäck and colleagues recruited 15 healthy volunteers. These people had never used e-cigarettes before, and had seldom smoked. The group was asked to smoke e-cigarettes with nicotine for 30 minutes on one occasion, and then smoke nicotine-free e-cigarettes for 30 minutes on a separate occasion. After each session, the person’s vital signs were evaluated.
The team found that e-cigarettes with nicotine significantly increased the person’s heart rate, blood pressure, and arterial stiffness, as compared to the nicotine-free version.
“Arterial stiffness increased around three-fold in those who were exposed to nicotine containing e-cigarettes compared to the nicotine-free group,” said Dr. Lundbäck. "The immediate increase in arterial stiffness that we saw is most likely attributed to nicotine."
The effects were temporary, corresponding to the short duration of the 30 minute exposure. However, Dr. Lundbäck noted that the same physiological changes are seen with regular smoking, which renews concerns over the long-term effects of nicotine exposure from e-cigarettes.
“The same temporary effects on arterial stiffness have also been demonstrated following use of conventional cigarettes. Chronic exposure to both active and passive cigarette smoking causes a permanent increase in arterial stiffness. Therefore, we speculate that chronic exposure to e-cigarettes with nicotine may cause permanent effects on arterial stiffness in the long term. As of today, there are no studies on the long-term effects on arterial stiffness following chronic e-cigarette exposure,” said Dr. Lundbäck.
In this study, the team attributed nicotine in the e-cigarettes to increasing arterial stiffness. However, it’s important to note that some other common substances, such as caffeine, can also have the same short-term effects. In this sense, the team still has to explore the magnitude of the effects from nicotine in e-cigarettes.
“Our results underline the necessity of maintaining a critical and cautious attitude towards e-cigarettes, especially for healthcare professionals. E-cigarette users should be aware of the potential dangers of this product, so that they can decide whether to continue or quit based on scientific facts,” Dr. Lundbäck concluded.
Additional sources: European Lung Foundation via EurekAlert!