Flavorings Affect E-liquid Risks, But They’re Avoidable
Any study suggesting potential health risks of e-liquid generates a lot of headlines, but one point is rarely given the emphasis it deserves: many e-liquid risks are totally avoidable.
The importance of this point is clearest when considering the impact of flavorings in e-liquid – for example, the presence of diacetyl in some e-liquids and the additional risks possibly associated with cinnamon flavorings – and comes down to a simple fact: if a flavoring increases risk, mixers can easily stop adding it.
The risks of vaping e-liquid are likely to be much, much smaller than those of smoking tobacco, but it’s also entirely possible to make e-liquid safer, whereas with tobacco there is little that can be done.
E-Liquid Risks: The Unavoidable Dangers
It would be unreasonable to suggest that there are no risks from e-liquid and vaping: after all, we’re inhaling something our lungs weren’t designed for, and there is evidence that vapor at least serves as a respiratory irritant. In many ways, this is an unavoidable risk – we could substitute different chemicals for propylene glycol (PG – generally recognized as safe but a known respiratory irritant) and vegetable glycerin (VG), but it would be hard to find something with no risk whatsoever to fill this role. Similarly, nicotine is not particularly dangerous, but it does carry some risks, and it can’t be avoided without jeopardizing the core appeal of vaping.
E-Liquid Risks: The Avoidable Risk of Flavorings
However, there are many e-liquid risks that are completely avoidable. A recent study drew attention to the risks associated with e-liquid flavoring, particularly those containing small quantities of aldehydes (like benzaldehyde), and previous research has also identified the presence of diacetyl and the similar chemical acetyl propionyl in many e-liquids. The problem is that flavorings recognized as safe for ingestion aren’t necessarily safe to inhale, so even if your stomach can deal with a chemical, it doesn’t definitively mean your lungs can too.
These flavorings are added to the base mixture of PG, VG and nicotine to make the e-liquid taste more pleasant, but these aren’t necessary components. If it turned out that all flavorings were dangerous to inhale, even in that situation it would be possible to minimize e-liquid risks by simply not adding the flavors.
E-Liquid’s Risks Can Be Minimized, Tobacco’s Can’t
There is no reason to expect that all flavorings are dangerous to inhale, so a more realistic estimate of the avoidable e-liquid risks would be that a handful of flavorings – diacetyl, acetyl propionyl and cinnamaldehyde, for example – would increase the risk of vaping. If sufficient evidence of this is found, manufacturers have a plethora of other flavors at their disposal, and can easily put out a varied selection of e-liquid without including such chemicals. For instance, many mixers have already gone diacetyl-free. Vapers might miss the buttery flavors (from diacetyl and acetyl propionyl) and cinnamon e-liquids, but with so many flavors still available, the difference to the ordinary vaper would be minimal.
But what about the risks of tobacco? Are there any ways to prevent the combustion of cured tobacco leaf from producing almost 70 carcinogens? No, because the actual process of combustion itself is primarily to blame: the combusted tobacco plant generates tons of toxins as an unavoidable consequence of its nature. You can’t change the composition of the smoke produced from tobacco, but you can certainly alter the composition of e-cig vapor through careful and responsible e-liquid mixing.
Conclusion – More Knowledge Means Bigger Reductions in E-Liquid Risks
We do need more research into e-liquid’s health risks and potential risks, but keeping in mind the core difference between the risks of vaping and those of smoking, it’s clear that the more studies conducted on the risks of inhaling flavorings, the safer vaping will become. Finding a new risk of smoking just provides another reason to not do it, but if a flavoring chemical is identified as posing a risk in e-cig vapor, responsible mixers will stop using it and vapers won’t be exposed. This is a fundamental difference between smoking and vaping we should be careful not to forget.
- CDC: Chemicals in Tobacco Smoke
- Evaluation of Electronic Cigarette Liquids and Aerosol for the Presence of Selected Inhalation Toxins (2015) Farsalinos, K. al.
- Flavour chemicals in electronic cigarette fluids (2015) Tierney, P. A., al.
- Vapors Produced by Electronic Cigarettes and E-Juices with Flavorings Induce Toxicity, Oxidative Stress, and Inflammatory Response in Lung Epithelial Cells and in Mouse Lung (2015) Lerner, C.A. al.
- Evaluation of E-Cigarette Liquid Vapor and Mainstream Cigarette Smoke after Direct Exposure of Primary Human Bronchial Epithelial Cells (2015) Scheffler, S. al.
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