Nicotine or Not, E- Cigarettes Damage Airway Cells

A study conducted by researchers at U.S. respiratory hospital, National Jewish Health, showed it takes 10 minutes for e-cigarette liquid vapor to affect human airway (epithelial) cells, posing a higher risk of respiratory viral infections regardless whether the vapor contained nicotine. E-cigarette use has increased 620 percent since 2010, but the science of its impact has not been able to keep up with this surge. According to the study, the marked increase in e-cigarette use is particularly troubling because many users assume that the product is safer than tobacco cigarettes.

The Study

Researchers placed epithelial cells in a sterile container of a machine at one end, and attached an electronic cigarette at the other end. The machine applied suction to the e-cigarette to simulate human use. The vapors produced by that suction traveled through tubes to the container holding the human cells, and once there, the vapors triggered an immune response from the cells almost immediately, as the cells produced a significant increase in the level of IL-6 protein.

“The epithelial cells were damaged after only a few minutes of exposure and the immune response lasted up to 48 hours. That indicates to us that these cells responded quickly to the presence of e-cigarette liquid or vapors by producing IL-6 protein, which contributes to the lung inflammation and injury,” said Hong Wei Chu, M.D.

The Problem

E-cigarettes are not regulated, and there are no standards to control how much nicotine or other chemicals they contain. Some have maintained that the products are marketed toward the younger population as many are flavored in a way that appeals to kids and teenagers. In a recent press release regarding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2012 “Tips from Former Smokers” campaign, CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., has said, “Smoking-related disease costs this nation more than $289 billion a year” in health care costs.