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Are E-Cigarettes Safe?


By Dan Gordon '85

Published Oct 1, 2016 8:00 AM

UCLA School of Dentistry research finds cause for concern.

Illustration by Leif Parsons.

One of the great public health success stories in the United States has been the impact of education and public policy on smoking rates — down from 42 percent to 17 percent of the adult population since the U.S. surgeon general’s 1964 report identifying cigarettes as a major health hazard. But what about electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, whose use has grown exponentially in the last decade?

These battery-charged devices used for “vaping” release a chemical-laden aerosol (which includes nicotine) that’s inhaled in place of tobacco smoke. Little is known about e-cigs’ long-term health risks, but a study by researchers in the UCLA School of Dentistry suggests cause for concern.

Through laboratory tests on cultured cell lines, the UCLA team showed that e-cigarette vapors may significantly weaken the natural defense mechanism of the oral cavity (the portion of the mouth behind the teeth and gums), and that the toxic substances and nanoparticles in e-cigs can kill that area’s top layer of skin cells. Although they can’t conclude from their results that e-cigs cause cancer, the UCLA researchers believe their findings — combined with the work of other researchers indicating that vaping can cause DNA damage — should serve as a major red flag.

Approximately 9 million adults vape regularly, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and nearly half of high school students surveyed by the CDC in 2015 had tried vaping.

“Many users seem to be unaware of the potential harm e-cigarettes can cause to the oral cavity,” says Shen Hu M.B.A. ’16, associate professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry and the study’s lead author. Hu and his colleagues will next seek to translate the findings to a human study. “Our hope is to develop a screening model to help predict toxicity levels of e-cigarette products so that consumers are better informed,” he says.

“Whether e-cigs can help tobacco smokers quit is open to debate,” concludes Diana Messadi, associate dean in the dental school and a study co-author. “But adolescents and others who have never smoked before should not be led to believe that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes.”