Whenever I tell anyone I research e-cigarettes, they almost always have an opinion about them. Some will be vapers themselves, and those that are almost without fail sing the praises of the device that finally helped them stop smoking. But often people who’ve never tried e-cigarettes will focus on the potential risks from using them, and in particular whether they’re likely to reintroduce smoking to a young generation who’ve been steadily shunning it in bigger numbers over recent decades. A certain fear is that young people will test out e-cigarettes and that this will be a gateway in to smoking, along with fears around the harms from e-cigarettes themselves.
A recent detailed study of over 60,000 UK 11-16 year olds found that young people who try out e-cigarettes are generally those that already smoke cigarettes, and even then experimentation mostly doesn’t translate to regular use. Not just that, but smoking rates among younger people throughout the uk continue to be declining. Studies conducted up to now investigating the gateway hypothesis that vaping contributes to smoking have tended to look at whether having ever tried an e-cigarette predicts later smoking. But young adults who test out e-cigarettes will be distinctive from those who don’t in a lot of alternative methods – maybe they’re just more keen to take risks, which will also boost the likelihood that they’d experiment with cigarettes too, whether or not they’d used e-cigarettes.
Although there are a small minority of young people that do start to use best electronic cigarette without previously becoming a smoker, as yet there’s little evidence that this then increases the potential risk of them becoming cigarette smokers. Add to this reports from Public Health England which have concluded e-cigarettes are 95% safer than smoking, and you might think that could be the end of the fear surrounding them.
But e-cigarettes have really divided the general public health community, with researchers that have the normal aim of decreasing the levels of smoking and smoking-related harm suddenly finding themselves on opposite sides from the debate. This is concerning, and partly because in a relative dearth of research on the devices exactly the same findings are being used by each side to back up and criticise e-cigarettes. And all sorts of this disagreement is playing outside in the media, meaning an unclear picture of what we realize (and don’t know) about e-cigarettes will be portrayed, with vapers feeling persecuted and people who have not even made an effort to quit mistakenly believing that there’s no part of switching, as e-cigarettes might be just as harmful as smoking.
An unexpected consequence of this may be it can make it harder to accomplish the particular research necessary to elucidate longer-term results of e-cigarettes. Which is one thing we’re experiencing while we try to recruit for our current study. We have been conducting a research project funded by CRUK, where we’re collecting saliva samples from smokers, vapers and non-smokers. We’re taking a look at DNA methylation, a biological marker that influences gene expression. It’s been shown that smokers possess a distinct methylation profile, when compared with non-smokers, and it’s likely that these modifications in methylation might be connected to the increased probability of harm from smoking – for instance cancer risk. Even if the methylation changes don’t result in the increased risk, they may be a marker of this. We wish to compare the patterns observed in smokers and non-smokers with the ones from electronic cigarette users, potentially giving us some insight in to the long term impact of vaping, without having to wait for time for you to elapse. Methylation changes happen relatively quickly than the start of chronic illnesses.
Portion of the difficulty with this is that we know that smokers and ex-smokers possess a distinct methylation pattern, so we don’t want this clouding any pattern from vaping, meaning we must recruit vapers who’ve never (or certainly only hardly ever) smoked. Which is proving challenging for 2 reasons. Firstly, as borne out by the recent research, it’s rare for people who’ve never smoked cigarettes to take up regular vaping. Yes, maybe they’ll experiment, but that doesn’t necessarily result in an e-cigarette habit.
But in addition to that, an unexpected problem has become the unwillingness of some in the vaping community to assist us recruit. And they’re postpone because of fears that whatever we find, the outcomes will be employed to paint a negative picture of vaping, and vapers, by people who have an agenda to push. I don’t want to downplay the extreme helpfulness of lots of people in the vaping community in helping us to recruit – thanks a lot, you understand who you are. However I was disheartened to know that for some, the misinformation and scaremongering around vaping has reached the stage where they’re opting out from the research entirely. And after talking with people directly about this, it’s tough to criticize their reasoning. We have now also found that a number of e-cigarette retailers were resistant against placing posters aiming cwctdr recruit people who’d never smoked, because they didn’t desire to be seen to become promoting electronic cigarette utilization in people who’d never smoked, which can be again completely understandable and should be applauded.
What can we all do concerning this? Hopefully as increasing numbers of scientific studies are conducted, and that we get clearer info on e-cigarettes capability to work as a smoking cessation tool, the disagreement around them will disappear. Until then, Hopefully vapers continue to agree to participate in research therefore we can fully explore the potential of these products, in particular those rare “unicorns” who vape but have never smoked, as they could be crucial to helping us comprehend the impact of vaping, in comparison with smoking.