You may have heard e-cigarettes are better for you than traditional cigarettes—and to some extent, that’s true: They contain fewer toxic chemicals than regular smokes, according to Hopkins Medicine. But that doesn’t mean e-cigarettes are actually healthy.
And now there’s a new reason to avoid them: The flavoring (called “e-liquid”) may up your risk of heart disease, according to a new study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that e-liquids harm the endothelial cells that line blood vessels and the heart. Along with causing increased DNA damage and cell death, the liquids also appear to interfere with blood vessel growth.
The study tested six popular flavors: tobacco, menthol, fruit, sweet tobacco with caramel and vanilla, sweet butterscotch, and cinnamon. Menthol and cinnamon were found to be the most harmful.
"Until now, we had no data about how these e-liquids affect human endothelial cells," said senior study author Joseph Wu, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and professor of cardiovascular medicine and of radiology. "This study clearly shows that e-cigarettes are not a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes. When we exposed the cells to six different flavors of e-liquid with varying levels of nicotine, we saw significant damage.”
The Rise of E-Cigs
Smoking is the cause of more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, per the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and about one-third of those deaths in smokers are caused by cardiovascular disease. We know that endothelial cells play a key role in maintaining cardiovascular health, so the fact that they are vulnerable to even e-cigarette use is sobering.
E-cigarettes have grown hugely popular in the past decade, and young people are some of the top users, according to the FDA. In fact, more than 3.5 million middle- and high-school students used e-cigs in 2018, even though it’s against the law for minors to buy them. That said, many adults use e-cigs too, in part because it allows people to continue inhaling nicotine in places where traditional smoking isn’t allowed, according to Hopkins Medicine.
If you’re trying to quit smoking (and you really should!), you may be tempted to try e-cigs as a first step since they’re often marketed that way. But it’s an ineffective strategy: Recent research shows that most people who tried e-cigs to quit their nicotine habit ended up vaping along with continuing to smoke regular cigarettes, according to Hopkins Medicine.
"When you're smoking a traditional cigarette, you have a sense of how many cigarettes you're smoking," Wu said. "But e-cigarettes can be deceptive. It's much easier to expose yourself to a much higher level of nicotine over a shorter time period. And now we know that e-cigarettes are likely to have other significantly toxic effects on vascular function as well. It's important for e-cigarette users to realize that these chemicals are circulating within their bodies and affecting their vascular health."
So if you’re hoping to cut nicotine from your life for the sake of your health (and the health of those around you), go for the tried-and-true methods, including medications approved by the FDA:
- Over-the-counter medications, like nicotine gum, patches, or lozenges
- Prescription medications, like nicotine inhalers and nasal sprays, the antidepressant Zyban (bupropion), and Chantix (vareniciline), a medication that blocks the effects of nicotine in your brain
- Counseling and support groups
- Apps like MyQuit Coach, Smoke Free, or Kwit
Talk with your doctor to get help coming up with a plan to quit and the best methods for you.