Vaping and Cancer: Five Important Questions and Their Answers

  • While vaping has become a popular alternative to traditional smoking, e-cigarettes are far from a safe alternative to regular cigarettes.

    Fox Chase pulmonologist Sheela Ahmed, MD
    Fox Chase pulmonologist Sheela Ahmed, MD

    Fox Chase pulmonologist Sheela Ahmed, MD has the answers for some common questions about vaping—including whether it could raise the risk of cancer:

    Does e-cigarette vapor contain chemicals or is it just water?

    The term “vaping” might lead you to believe that e-cigarette smoke is simply water vapor, but that’s not the case. E-cigarette aerosol contains a cocktail of nicotine, toxic metals, propylene glycol and glycerol, flavorings, and other chemicals that can reach deep into the lungs. Some of these substances are suspected to cause cancer, and some are linked to other lung diseases (such as acute lung injury) that have put several people in intensive care units (ICUs) with respiratory failure.

    Is vaping a healthier alternative to regular smoking?

    E-cigarettes don’t burn tobacco, so they are marketed as containing fewer toxic chemicals than regular cigarettes (and as a safer alternative). However, this is not true. In the short term, vaping has caused acute lung injury and respiratory failure, which is something not attributed to regular cigarette use.

    Researchers have also reported that in animal studies, vape smoke has caused cancer in mice. Because of this, the medical and scientific communities are very concerned about what we may see in the next 10–15 years as exposure and related lung injuries increase.

    Also, the nicotine in e-cigarettes makes them highly addictive and can act as a gateway drug for future addiction problems.

    Can vaping cause cancer?

    Some studies in medical literature suggest that vaping can cause cancer. E-cigarette aerosol contains many chemicals, and their long-term effects are still unknown.

    Animal studies designed to mimic human exposure to vaping have shown that vape aerosol can cause changes to cells in a matter of months. These changes suggest that DNA is being injured and not repaired. Over time, it is suspected that this may cause cancer.

    Still, it could take decades before researchers can connect the current vaping trend to higher lung cancer rates in humans.

    Is vaping a good option for people trying to quit smoking?

    E-cigarettes are promoted as a smoking cessation aid, but overall data suggests they aren’t working. Some people quit smoking and start an unhealthy habit of vaping, while others both smoke and vape.

    While some people can quit smoking with the help of e-cigarettes, it’s important to remember that the key to smoking cessation is patient motivation—not e-cigarettes. So, if you’re thinking about using e-cigarettes as a tool to help you quit, you should talk with your doctor first.

    What do experts know for sure about vaping and what do we still hope to learn?

    It’s a fact that e-cigarettes contain harmful chemicals that have the potential to make people sick. We already know of hundreds of cases of vaping-induced acute lung injury and respiratory failure (EVALI) in the United States and across the world.

    Also, there have been many cases of children being poisoned by e-cigarette nicotine pods and e-cigarette explosions that have caused severe burns to the face and limbs.

    Early animal studies have also pointed to a link between vape smoke and cancer, suggesting that people who vape may be at an increased risk as well.

    “As a cancer center, we are very concerned about the animal studies showing that e-cigarette smoke caused cancer in mice and, in the future, we want to study DNA changes in the cells of people who vape,” said Ahmed. “In the meantime, physicians strongly urge caution and the establishment of community education programs regarding the risks of vaping.”