E-cigarettes May Increase Your Lung Disease Risk in Ways That Cigarettes Don’t

Man Smoking E-cigarette
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E-cigarettes have become increasingly popular lately, particularly among people who are trying to quit smoking for good. And while e-cigs are commonly marketed as the better-for-you options, each new study on e-cigarettes’ effects seems to come to a different conclusion than the last. So whether the current consensus is that e-cigs are a great way to quit smoking or the next public health crisis, you know there’s bound to be a new, different bit of evidence shortly.

To wit: E-cigarettes not only cause some of the same negative effects as traditional cigarettes, but may also cause unique side effects that traditional cigarettes don’t cause, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

In reality, though, it’s hard to compare e-cigarettes with traditional cigarettes by merely arguing which is better or worse.

“Comparing the harm of e-cigarettes with cigarettes is a little like comparing apples to oranges,” senior study author Dr. Mehmet Kesimer said, according to Eurekalert. “Our data shows that e-cigarettes have a signature of harm in the lung that is both similar and unique, which challenges the concept that switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes is a healthier alternative.”

The admittedly small study claims to be the first to use samples from human airways to explore the consequences of e-cigarette smoking, with researchers comparing sputum (the lovely mucus and bacteria present in your respiratory system) samples from 15 e-cigarette smokers, 14 cigarette smokers, and 15 nonsmokers. E-cigarette smokers and cigarette smokers both had more proteins associated with lung disease, as well as more mucus secretions associated with chronic bronchitis and asthma.

E-cigarette smokers had significantly higher levels of proteins related to “neutrophil-extracellular-traps”—an infection-fighting tool of white blood cells—which can contribute to the development of lung diseases like COPD and cystic fibrosis. Furthermore, they had more of these traps outside the lungs—a bad sign associated with cell death in the tissues that line blood vessels and organs. (Of course, researchers will need to dig a little more to figure out if those traps are associated with inflammatory diseases like lupus and psoriasis.)

Five of the e-cigarette smokers said they smoked traditional cigarettes occasionally, and 12 were previously cigarette smokers, which was a limitation in the study, but the findings still challenge the idea that e-cigarettes are a “healthy” alternative to cigarettes, according to Kesimer.

“There is confusion about whether e-cigarettes are ‘safer’ than cigarettes because the potential adverse effects of e-cigarettes are only beginning to be studied,” Kesimer said, noting that this study looked at possible effects that may harm your lungs. “Our results suggest that e-cigarettes might be just as bad as cigarettes.”