Electronic cigarettes, commonly known as e-cigarettes have been gaining popularity in Kenya, especially among young people who perceive them as trendy and harmless.
But nothing could be further from the truth, suggests a new finding. A study presented at the 256th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society notes that usage of the product, popularly referred to as ‘vaping’, may modify the genetic material (or DNA) in the oral cells of users hence increasing cancer risk.
Partakers of both regular cigarettes and e-cigarettes go after the products to get nicotine, a highly addictive substance that causes feelings of temporary relaxation and stress relief when inhaled.
In regular cigarettes, sold in sticks, nicotine is produced through the burning of tobacco, which aside from emitting nicotine also releases huge amounts of tar and carbon monoxide that are linked to many cancers including lung and oesophageal.
E-cigarettes, on the other hand, comprises of handheld electronic devices that heat a liquid containing nicotine into a vapour that people inhale.
As it delivers nicotine without the tar and carbon monoxide, e-cigarette manufacturers have been promoting it as a safer alternative to regular cigarettes since 2004 when they were introduced into the market globally.
But the World Health Organisation (WHO) has cautioned against their use, noting that the vapour emitted by e-cigarettes contains other harmful elements that are health hazards.
Indeed, in the new study, the researchers found that the vapour contains three chemicals — formaldehyde, acrolein and methylglyoxal — which cause DNA damage in mouths of e-cigarette users hence making them vulnerable to cancer.
The chemicals were found to increase in the saliva of users after just 15 minutes of taking the e-cigarettes.
A report by the WHO showed that for some of the e-cigarette brands, the levels of these cancer-causing chemicals — such as formaldehyde and acrolein — have been found to be as high as in the smoke produced by some cigarettes. This indicates that they are not any better.
Aside from contributing to cardiovascular disease, nicotine in e-cigarettes can have adverse effects during pregnancy, leading to long-term brain development challenges and nerve problems in unborn children.
Short-term effects of using the products include eye and respiratory irritation exposure to a chemical - known as propylene glycol - from e-cigarettes causes.
Compared to regular cigarettes, whose health effects have been studied extensively over many years, studies on the impacts of e-cigarettes are still limited as it is only recently that the products gained popularity.
As such, the minimal number of studies sometimes mislead users into thinking that the products are safe.
But research trickling in, so far, are worrying, hence prompting health experts to dissuade people from using it.
Romel Dator, one of the researchers that conducted the study noted: “E-cigarettes are a popular trend but the long-term health effects are still unknown.”
“Comparing e-cigarettes and regular tobacco cigarettes is really like comparing apples and oranges. Just because the threats are different doesn’t mean that e-cigarettes are completely safe,” Silvia Balbo, lead author of the study from the Masonic Cancer Centre at the University of Minnesota stated.
Dr Kepha Ombacho, director of Public Health at the Health ministry noted that all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, are harmful to the body and should be discouraged.
“Even though their mode of nicotine delivery is different from regular cigarettes, these e-cigarettes are still bad for people’s health.”
According to Joel Gitali, chairperson of the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance young people should not be lured into embracing e-cigarettes whilst thinking that the products are safe because they do not emit smoke.
“You will start as a joke. And within no time, you will be hooked to nicotine whose addiction is difficult to break. When this happens, your body will be relying on a product that will be killing you slowly. And you don’t want to be a slave of something that is destroying you.”
As liquids in e-cigarettes come in different flavours such as fruit, chocolate and candy, Mr Gitali says they may dupe innocent youth into thinking that they are harmless yet they are still health hazards.
“The flavours are just being used as an advertising strategy to increase sales but they really mean nothing. You will still be inhaling the nicotine together with other harmful chemicals that are released in the e-cigarette vapours.”
Due to their associated health risks, countries such as Brazil, Singapore, Uruguay and Seychelles, have banned e-cigarettes.