E-cigarettes are considered a harmless alternative to conventional tobacco cigarettes. According to a study by the University of Mainz, one in eight people in Germany has already smoked an e-cigarette. There are only a few studies and no long-term observations on the health consequences of so-called vaporization. Studies show that e-cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco cigarettes. However, this does not mean that they are harmless. And they can lower the threshold for smoking inhibition.

Here’s how e-cigarettes work

Flavoured liquids are sprayed electrically in an e-cigarette. The appliances consist of a power source (battery), an electric heating element (nebulizer) and a cartridge for the liquid to be evaporated. There is therefore no smoke, but an aerosol that is inhaled.

The range of liquids is wide. They are available in all flavours, from classic tobacco to strawberry and caramel to the taste of teddy bears. More than 8,000 fragrances are used, very few of which have been tested for their effects on humans.

Fewer pollutants than in tobacco smoke

Tobacco smoke contains more than 70 different carcinogenic substances. In comparison, the aerosol in e-cigarettes actually contains far fewer pollutants, but also contains substances that promote inflammation, irritation and even cancer. The Federal Institute for Risk Research and the German Cancer Centre therefore warn against underestimating the potential dangers of e-cigarettes.

Propylene glycol can irritate the eyes and respiratory tract.

The base of the liquid is propylene glycol, a substance that is also used as a disco or theatre fog. This vapour can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract. So far, the consequences of long-term exposure to this substance are not known.

With the vapour, the finest particles penetrate deep into the lungs and can be deposited there. The possible consequences are as follows:

  • Inflammation
  • Cough
  • Decrease in lung function

Researchers have even discovered genetic changes in people’s blood after inhalation, even in nicotine-free fluids. Gene activity was increased in the areas responsible for inflammatory processes and the cardiovascular system. This also points to possible long-term effects such as cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Nicotine can be addictive

Like conventional cigarettes, liquids can also contain nicotine, which is physically and psychologically addictive. In animal experiments, it triggers arteriosclerotic vascular changes. It has a teratogenic effect and promotes the growth of existing tumours.

Carcinogenic substances in the liquid

When liquids are heated, acetaldehyde and formaldehyde substances are also produced. These substances irritate the skin and mucous membranes, damage the respiratory tract and are considered carcinogenic. The amount absorbed during evaporation depends mainly on the usage behaviour. Especially when the liquid is heated, the doses are significantly higher than for conventional cigarettes. The use of three millilitres of liquid produces approximately 14 milligrams of formaldehyde. According to an American study, this corresponds to about 5 to 14 times the amount consumed by smoking 20 tobacco cigarettes, i.e. a whole box.

More tension, more pollutants

On the new electronic cigarette models, the voltage with which the ignition wire is heated can be adjusted individually. A higher tension means a higher temperature and more steam. This releases more nicotine and more pollutants such as carcinogenic formaldehyde.

Inflammation and contact allergies due to liquids

Most studies focus on the effects of liquids, but not on the effects of evaporation. Some aromas are known to be harmful. Mild diacetyl, similar to butter, can cause severe inflammation of the respiratory tract when inhaled. Other fragrances and preservatives, such as benzyl alcohol and cinnamaldehyde, can cause contact allergies.

E-cigarettes: A sensible option for heavy smokers

For heavy smokers, vaporising e-cigarettes can be the lesser evil – despite the health risks. If you gradually reduce the nicotine content of liquids, you may even find a way to get rid of your addiction.

On the other hand, teenagers who have already tried an e-cigarette are twice as likely to use tobacco cigarettes later – a connection that is very worrying for addiction researchers.

Smoking: are e-cigarettes harmful?