Whenever I tell anyone I research e-cigarettes, they almost always have 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 quit 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 larger and larger numbers over recent decades. A specific fear is that young adults will experiment with e-cigarettes and that this is a gateway in to smoking, along with fears around the harms from e-cigarettes themselves.
A newly released detailed study well over 60,000 UK 11-16 year olds finds that younger people who try out e-cigarettes are generally people who already smoke cigarettes, as well as then experimentation mostly doesn’t translate to regular use. Not just that, but smoking rates among young adults in the united kingdom continue to be declining. Studies conducted to date investigating the gateway hypothesis that vaping results in smoking have tended to look at whether having ever tried an e-cigarette predicts later smoking. But younger people who experiment with e-cigarettes will be distinct from people who don’t in a lot of other ways – maybe they’re just more keen to take risks, which would also increase the likelihood that they’d try out cigarettes too, no matter whether they’d used e-cigarettes.
Although there are a small minority of younger people who do begin to use best e cigarettes without previously becoming a smoker, as yet there’s little evidence that this then increases the risk of them becoming cigarette smokers. Increase this reports from Public Health England which have concluded e-cigarettes are 95% safer than smoking, and you might think that might be the end of the fear surrounding them.
But e-cigarettes have really divided the general public health community, with researchers that have the common aim of decreasing the levels of smoking and smoking-related harm suddenly finding themselves on opposite sides in the debate. This can be concerning, and partly because in a relative dearth of research on the devices the identical findings are used by each side to back up and criticise e-cigarettes. And all of this disagreement is playing outside in the media, meaning an unclear picture of the items we understand (and don’t know) about e-cigarettes has been portrayed, with vapers feeling persecuted and people who have not yet tried to quit mistakenly believing that there’s no reason for switching, as e-cigarettes might be just like harmful as smoking.
An unexpected results of this might be that it makes it harder to perform the very research needed to elucidate longer-term outcomes of e-cigarettes. Which is a thing we’re experiencing as we try to recruit for your current study. We have been conducting a research project funded by CRUK, where we’re collecting saliva samples from smokers, vapers and non-smokers. We’re taking a look at DNA methylation, a biological marker that influences gene expression. It’s been shown that smokers use a distinct methylation profile, in comparison to non-smokers, and it’s likely that these modifications in methylation may be linked to the increased chance of harm from smoking – for instance cancer risk. Even if the methylation changes don’t result in the increased risk, they might be a marker of this. We wish to compare the patterns observed in smokers and non-smokers with those of e-cigarette users, potentially giving us some insight in the long-term impact of vaping, without having to watch for time and energy to elapse. Methylation changes happen relatively quickly as compared to the onset of chronic illnesses.
Area of the difficulty with this is the fact we know that smokers and ex-smokers possess a distinct methylation pattern, and we don’t want this clouding any pattern from vaping, which suggests we must recruit vapers who’ve never (or certainly only very rarely) smoked. And this is proving challenging for 2 reasons. Firstly, as borne out through the recent research, it’s rare for individuals who’ve never smoked cigarettes to take up regular vaping. Yes, maybe they’ll experiment, but that doesn’t necessarily result in an electronic cigarette habit.
But additionally, an unexpected problem has been the unwillingness of some within the vaping community to assist us recruit. And they’re delay as a result of fears that whatever we discover, the outcomes will be used to paint a poor picture of vaping, and vapers, by people with an agenda to push. I don’t desire to downplay the extreme helpfulness of lots of people within the vaping community in assisting us to recruit – thank you, you know what you are about. Having Said That I really was disheartened to learn that for a few, the misinformation and scaremongering around vaping has reached the stage where they’re opting out from the research entirely. And after speaking to people directly relating to this, it’s tough to criticize their reasoning. We have now also found that a number of electronic cigarette retailers were immune to putting up posters aiming cwctdr recruit people who’d never smoked, as they didn’t want to be seen to get promoting e-cigarette use in people who’d never smoked, that is again completely understandable and should be applauded.
So what can we all do about this? Hopefully as increasing numbers of scientific studies are conducted, and that we get clearer information on e-cigarettes capability to serve as a quitting smoking tool, the disagreement around them will disappear. Until then, I hope that vapers carry on and agree to take part in research therefore we can fully explore the chance of these products, in particular those rare “unicorns” who vape but have never smoked, as they might be important to helping us be aware of the impact of vaping, in comparison with smoking.