As authorities in the United Kingdom officially license electronic cigarettes as an aid to quit smoking, a new study has suggested the devices may not be any healthier than the real thing.
UK doctors can now legally prescribe a brand of e-cigarettes, developed by multinational tobacco company British American Tobacco, through the nations government health service.
But it was expected to be a controversial approval, especially since there was still little research on the device’s health impacts.
The announcement came soon after a study found vapours from the digital devices damaged cells in a similar way to traditional cigarettes.
The US study, published in journal Oral Oncology, compared the vapours of two popular brands of e-cigarettes.
The results “strongly suggested” e-cigarettes harmed the body’s cells and could promote cancer.
The battery-powered devices, which simulate the motion and feel of smoking using vapour instead of tobacco, are used by many people as a way to quit smoking.
About 500 different brands have been developed, in more than 7000 flavours.
In Australia, importation of the nicotine-containing devices is legal, if it is part of a medical prescription.
Without a prescription, possession and use of the product is against the law. This varies for non-nicotine varieties.
‘No better than smoking cigarettes’
The results of the study were not definitive and researchers planned to delve more into the issue, but a lead researcher on the study, Dr Jessica Wang-Rodriguez, had a pretty good idea of what they may find.
“Based on the evidence to date, I believe they are no better than smoking regular cigarettes,” she said.
But, University of Sydney emeritus professor in social medicine and tobacco control activist, Simon Chapman, said he disagreed with the “misleading” suggestions.
“When it comes to it, there is no doubt about it that e-cigarettes are going to be far less dangerous than cigarette smoking, because there is really nothing that comes close to cigarette smoking,” he told The New Daily.
“The real comparison is how dangerous are they compared to breathing clean air?”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) seemed to share a similar view.
In 2014, WHO found there was not enough evidence to support the idea that they helped to quit smoking, recommending a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and from use in public spaces.
The agency said these regulations should be imposed until more was known of the devices and their side-effects.
Nicotine not the main culprit
Both nicotine and non-nicotine versions were tested in the US study, conducted by the VA San Diego Healthcare System, and although the latter did not cause as much damage, it still proved harmful.
“There have been many studies showing that nicotine can damage cells, but we found that other variables can do damage as well,” Dr Wang-Rodriguez said.
“It’s not that the nicotine is completely innocent in the mix, but it looks like the amount of nicotine that the cells are exposed to by e-cigarettes is not sufficient by itself to cause these changes.
“There must be other components in the e-cigarettes that are doing this damage. So we may be identifying other carcinogenic components that are previously undescribed.”