When I tell anyone I research e-cigarettes, they almost always have an opinion about them. Some will be vapers themselves, and those who 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, particularly whether they’re likely to reintroduce smoking to a young generation who have been steadily shunning it in bigger numbers over recent decades. A specific fear is that young adults will experiment with e-cigarettes and that this is a gateway in to smoking, as well as fears around the harms from e-cigarettes themselves.
A recent detailed study of more than 60,000 UK 11-16 year olds found that young adults who try out e-cigarettes are often those who already smoke cigarettes, and even then experimentation mostly doesn’t translate to regular use. Not just that, but smoking rates among young people in the UK continue to be declining. Studies conducted to date investigating the gateway hypothesis that vaping leads to smoking have tended to look at whether having ever tried an e-cigarette predicts later smoking. But young adults who try out e-cigarettes are going to be distinct from those who don’t in plenty of other ways – maybe they’re just more keen to take risks, which would also raise the likelihood that they’d test out cigarettes too, no matter whether they’d used e-cigarettes.
Although there are a small minority of young adults that do begin to use best e cigarette without previously as being a smoker, as yet there’s little evidence that this then increases the chance of them becoming cigarette smokers. Enhance this reports from Public Health England that have concluded e-cigarettes are 95% safer than smoking, and you might think that would be the final of the fear surrounding them.
But e-cigarettes have really divided the public health community, with researchers who have the most popular purpose of lowering the degrees of smoking and smoking-related harm suddenly finding themselves on opposite sides in the debate. This is concerning, and partly because in a relative dearth of research on the devices exactly the same findings are employed by both sides to support and criticise e-cigarettes. And all sorts of this disagreement is playing out in the media, meaning an unclear picture of what we understand (and don’t know) about e-cigarettes will be portrayed, with vapers feeling persecuted and those that have not even tried to quit mistakenly believing that there’s no point in switching, as e-cigarettes might be just as harmful as smoking.
An unexpected consequence of this could be which it causes it to be harder to do the very research needed to elucidate longer-term results of e-cigarettes. And this is something we’re experiencing since we attempt to recruit for the current study. We are performing a research project funded by CRUK, where we’re collecting saliva samples from smokers, vapers and non-smokers. We’re checking out DNA methylation, a biological marker that influences gene expression. It’s been demonstrated that smokers possess a distinct methylation profile, in comparison to non-smokers, and it’s probable that these modifications in methylation might be linked to the increased risk of harm from smoking – for example cancer risk. Whether or not the methylation changes don’t cause the increased risk, they may be a marker of it. We would like to compare the patterns noticed in smokers and non-smokers with the ones from electronic cigarette users, potentially giving us some insight in the long-term impact of vaping, while not having to watch for time to elapse. Methylation changes happen relatively quickly as compared to the onset of chronic illnesses.
Area of the difficulty with this particular is the fact we know that smokers and ex-smokers use a distinct methylation pattern, and that we don’t want this clouding any pattern from vaping, which suggests we must recruit vapers who’ve never (or certainly only very rarely) smoked. And also this is proving challenging for 2 reasons. Firstly, as borne out through the recent research, it’s very rare for folks who’ve never smoked cigarettes to adopt up regular vaping. Yes, maybe they’ll experiment, but that doesn’t necessarily result in an electronic cigarette habit.
But on top of that, an unexpected problem has been the unwillingness of some inside the vaping community to assist us recruit. And they’re put off due to fears that whatever we find, the final results will be utilized to paint a poor picture of vaping, and vapers, by people who have an agenda to push. I don’t desire to downplay the extreme helpfulness of lots of people inside the vaping community in helping us to recruit – thanks a lot, you already know who you are. Having Said That I really was disheartened to hear that for a few, the misinformation and scaremongering around vaping has reached the stage where they’re opting out of the research entirely. And after speaking to people directly concerning this, it’s difficult to criticize their reasoning. We have now also found that a number of e-cigarette retailers were resistant against setting up posters aiming cwctdr recruit people who’d never smoked, because they didn’t want to be seen to become promoting electronic cigarette use in people who’d never smoked, that is again completely understandable and should be applauded.
So what can we do about this? Hopefully as increasing numbers of research is conducted, so we get clearer info on e-cigarettes capability to act as a smoking cessation tool, the disagreement around them will disappear. For the time being, Hopefully vapers carry on and agree to participate in research so that we can fully explore the potential of these units, particularly those rare “unicorns” who vape but have never smoked, as they may be important to helping us understand the impact of vaping, in comparison with smoking.