The E-Smoking Gun

The 11th of March was No Smoking Day and on the same day here in the UK the House of Commons voted in favour of standardised packaging for all cigarettes.
Great news in order to aid in the stamp-out of smoking, but of course the war rages on.

Today we all know that smoking is dangerous leading to 90% of all deaths from lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and infertility just to name a few. Generally smokers have a 14% risk of developing lung cancer in comparison to non-smokers and can expect to lose a decade off their life expectancy, which can be gained back if they quit, although the benefits in doing so diminish with age. Those of the dude variety should probably know that smoking causes loss of the Y chromosome, and those of the gal type need to know that it will probably be more difficult for you to quit smoking.

So if you are standing outside and want to come in from the cold literally, then there are resources to help you. However if you are thinking of alternatives and possibly vaping, you might want to reconsider.

Vaping or electronic cigarettes have been offered as an alternative to smoking to aid in cessation. They were invented by a Hong-Kong pharmacist in 2003 and became available in the West seven years later. They work by having a heating element that vaporises liquid nicotine in solvents. While it is the nicotine itself that is addictive, it has no risk to long-term health. The risks inherent in smoking ultimately lie in the other compounds; carbonyls, volatile organic compounds, tobacco specific nitrosamines, heavy metals and toxic gases. Some of these chemicals are found in vaping but they are in small amounts, while others (identified as carcinogens) are avoided by vaping. Studies have shown that unlike conventional cigarettes, vaping has no effect on lung function (even though it can cause inflammation) and that the blood pressure increase is small.

While there is widespread agreement that e-cigarettes are not as harmful as the real deal, the scientific community is sharply divided. But the issue lies in whether it will un-do the hard earned work in stigmatising smoking over the past decades. In the early 20th century, smoking was promoted as doctors recommended it. However as the evidence began to stack up of its dangers, it became stigmatised and socially unacceptable. Perfectly illustrated in the 1995 Kevin Costner movie Waterworld where the Smokers are the bad guys!

Waterworld Smokers









Some argue that e-cigs remove this stigma and re-normalises smoking. Vaping by contrast is allowed indoors thus circumventing the ban. Some also belief that vaping keeps smoking going, especially if there are different flavours of nicotine (rum and pina colada, if you like the exotic!) Others think it is a good way to stop smoking related deaths, but others think that vaping is just a pathway for non-smokers to get addicted to tobacco. The scientific studies themselves are touch and go. In one trial, vaping was found to be as effective as nicotine patches for helping others to quit, but the results were inconclusive. Notably in another study e-cigs were found to not aid in quitting at all.

So as we wait for the smoking gun (pun intended) or not as the case maybe, what is the action that is being taken? For one thing here in the UK and in 26 states in America, the sale of them to minors is illegal, and from next year their advertising will be limited. Just last year, loose regulation was called for by fifty scientists writing to the World Health Organisation. They presume that with strict regulation comes great ease to move onto conventional cigarettes and that tobacco companies will capitalise on that. Unfortunately the WHO did not take heed saying that there was no proof that vaping aided in quitting. With that, flavoured nicotine was banned. Some think that e-cigs should be marketed as a medical device and in some countries, such as Denmark and Austria that is the case.

The jury is clearly still out. However, in the meantime if you are trying to give up, it may be a better idea to look elsewhere for help. So good luck, and remember. . . .





Danae Dodge

I received my PhD in Scientific Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2011 which specialised in ancient DNA and anthropology. For my profile, see my websites: I started getting involved in Science Brainwaves as a volunteer in 2010. I have volunteered at presentations, events (such as the British Science Festival in 2011) and even participated in the Science is Vital protest march in October 2010. My first blog for Science Brainwaves was "Ancient Humans: Who were they? And who got it on?" which was the written version of a talk I gave for the Natural History Society at the University of Sheffield on 5 December 2011. I also have a public engagement page dedicated to ancient DNA, which I encourage both the public and specialists to join: