Whenever I tell anyone I research e-cigarettes, they almost always come with 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 give up smoking. But often people who’ve never tried e-cigarettes will focus on the potential risks from using them, and in particular whether they’re prone to reintroduce smoking to a young generation who have been steadily shunning it in bigger numbers over recent decades. A particular fear is that young people will experiment with e-cigarettes and that this can be a gateway in to smoking, in addition to fears around the harms from e-cigarettes themselves.
A newly released detailed study of over 60,000 UK 11-16 year olds finds that younger people who experiment with e-cigarettes are generally those who already smoke cigarettes, and even then experimentation mostly doesn’t translate to regular use. Not only that, but smoking rates among young adults throughout the uk are still declining. Studies conducted up to now investigating the gateway hypothesis that vaping results in smoking have tended to look at whether having ever tried an electronic cigarette predicts later smoking. But young people who test out e-cigarettes will probably be different from people who don’t in plenty of different ways – maybe they’re just more keen to consider risks, which would also increase the likelihood that they’d test out cigarettes too, regardless of whether they’d used e-cigarettes.
Although there are a small minority of young people that do commence to use best electronic cigarettes without previously being a smoker, as yet there’s little evidence that the then increases the chance of them becoming cigarette smokers. Increase this reports from Public Health England that have concluded e-cigarettes are 95% safer than smoking, and you might think that might be the end from the fear surrounding them.
But e-cigarettes have really divided the general public health community, with researchers that have the common goal of decreasing the levels 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 the identical findings are being used by either side to back up and criticise e-cigarettes. And all sorts of this disagreement is playing out in the media, meaning an unclear picture of the items 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 reason for switching, as e-cigarettes could be equally as harmful as smoking.
An unexpected consequence of this may be that it causes it to be harder to perform the particular research necessary to elucidate longer-term results of e-cigarettes. And this is something we’re experiencing since we try and recruit for your 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 looking at DNA methylation, a biological marker that influences gene expression. It’s been shown that smokers have a distinct methylation profile, when compared with non-smokers, and it’s likely that these alterations in methylation could be linked to the increased chance of harm from smoking – for example cancer risk. Whether or not the methylation changes don’t result in the increased risk, they could be a marker from it. We want to compare the patterns observed in smokers and non-smokers with the ones from electronic cigarette users, potentially giving us some insight into the long-term impact of vaping, while not having to wait for time to elapse. Methylation changes happen relatively quickly as compared to the start of chronic illnesses.
Part of the difficulty with this is the fact that we know that smokers and ex-smokers have a distinct methylation pattern, so we don’t want this clouding any pattern from vaping, which means we need to recruit vapers who’ve never (or certainly only rarely) smoked. And this is proving challenging for just two reasons. Firstly, as borne out from the recent research, it’s unusual 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 in addition to that, an unexpected problem continues to be the unwillingness of some within the vaping community to assist us recruit. And they’re put off because of fears that whatever we find, the final results will be utilized to paint a negative picture of vaping, and vapers, by people with an agenda to push. I don’t wish to downplay the extreme helpfulness of lots of people within the vaping community in aiding us to recruit – thanks a lot, you already know what you are about. Having Said That I was really disheartened to hear that for some, the misinformation and scaremongering around vaping has reached the stage where they’re opting from the research entirely. And after talking with people directly about this, it’s tough to criticize their reasoning. We have now also found that a number of electronic cigarette retailers were resistant against placing posters aiming cwctdr recruit people who’d never smoked, as they didn’t want to be seen to get promoting e-cigarette use within people who’d never smoked, that is again completely understandable and must be applauded.
So what can perform concerning this? I hope that as more research is conducted, and we get clearer information on e-cigarettes ability to work as a smoking cessation tool, the disagreement around them will disappear. For the time being, I hope that vapers continue to agree to take part in research so we can fully explore the potential of these devices, specifically those rare “unicorns” who vape but have never smoked, as they may be crucial to helping us comprehend the impact of vaping, in comparison with smoking.