Lung Health

The Health Risks of E-Cigarettes vs. Traditional Cigarettes

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

The use of e-cigarettes has increased exponentially in recent years, and they’re now the preferred tobacco product of today’s young people, surpassing traditional products like cigarettes and cigars.

Two recent government reports have cast more light on the health effects of e-cigarettes, and given doctors like Geneva Tatem, M.D., a Henry Ford Hospital lung specialist, more information to help their patients make the right decisions for their health.

“We need to balance the current science and evidence we have with the advocacy, to figure out the right way we should proceed in counseling our patients,” Dr. Tatem says.

In January 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released what it described as the most comprehensive analysis of existing research on e-cigarettes, finding that while e-cigarettes “are not without health risks, they are likely to be far less harmful than conventional cigarettes.” It also suggests that using e-cigarettes may lead to smoking traditional cigarettes.

A 2016 report by the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that e-cigarette use is a “public health concern that warrants immediate and coordinated action. Many questions remain about e-cigarettes and their long-term impact, even as evidence on patterns of use and risks to health continue to emerge.”

What Are E-Cigarettes and What Harm Can They Cause?

An e-cigarette is an electronic device that works by heating a liquid, which produces a vapor that the person then inhales. The liquid burns at a lower temperature than a traditional cigarette. While an e-cigarette doesn’t contain tar like a traditional cigarette, it does produce other toxic chemicals.

“What we do know is that e-cigarettes contain some products that are harmful, particularly hard or heavy metals,” Dr. Tatem says. “Things like cadmium and other metals.”

E-cigarettes, also commonly known as vap pens, come in a smorgasbord of flavors to satisfy any user’s taste: apple, vanilla, strawberry and something called snap. One online distributor touts 300 flavors.  Of course, for the traditionalist, there’s the tobacco and menthol flavors. Don’t be fooled, though, by the slick marketing and think you’re not putting your health at risk, Dr. Tatem says.

“The products that are produced by an e-cigarette are much different than the products produced by a traditional tobacco cigarette,” Dr. Tatem says. “So, using it may still be harmful to the lungs. We don’t have enough research yet that tells us how much less harmful it is using an e-cigarette versus a traditional tobacco cigarette.”

Related Topic: How to Help a Loved One Quit Smoking

Three potential positive effects highlighted in the January NASEM report found that e-cigarettes may be:

  • Less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
  • Contain fewer numbers and lower levels of toxic substances than traditional cigarettes.
  • May help adults who smoke traditional cigarettes quit or reduce their smoking habit.

Dr. Tatem says she counsels her patients who smoke on two fronts: the nicotine addiction and the habit. Reducing the number of traditional cigarettes is always a worthy step toward quitting, even if that may mean turning to an e-cigarette as an option, she says.

Bottom line, talk to your doctor, Dr. Tatem says.

“As a pulmonologist, I see lots of patients who have developed disease as a result of tobacco and smoking products. Anything you can use to reduce the amount of tobacco you smoke, is potentially a good thing,” she explains. “More research is needed to help us clarify the difference between e-cigarettes and vape pens, and how much less harmful they can be relative to tobacco cigarettes.”

Check out Henry Ford’s Tobacco Treatment Services for more information about how to quit. 

Or make an appointment online or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936) and talk with your doctor about your tobacco habit and resources available to help you quit.

Dr. Geneva Tatem is a pulmonologist, specializing in women’s lung health and critical care medicine and seeing patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center – Taylor.