Are flavours the real problem with e-cigarettes? If you follow the deliberations and public statements by regulatory authorities at all levels, especially in the US, you would certainly think so.
As has been documented in some detail over and again by ECigIntelligence, the link repeatedly made is between flavours and attractiveness to young people, as if the use of flavouring agents in e-liquids was a worldwide conspiracy to hook children on nicotine. The result of that belief has been a rash of flavour bans of various levels of specificity, and at various levels of jurisdiction, from town council to federal government agency.
The counter argument, equally familiar, from manufacturers and vaping associations, is that adult users prefer flavoured vapes and that denying them that option will inevitably lead to a stampede back to the far more dangerous habit of smoking tobacco.
Now comes a scientific report, published in the American Journal of Physiology, which suggests both sides in this argument may have been missing the point.
The perfect taste
The study by researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and the University of Adelaide School of Medicine in Australia found reason to suspect that the real danger in flavours is not a question of who they appeal to, but of what they may do to the user’s lungs.
Pulmonary specialist Laura Crotty Alexander, associate professor of medicine at the San Diego school, said: “To create these flavour profiles, companies are adding multiple chemicals to achieve that perfect taste. When inhaled, they wreak havoc on the lungs and affect specialised protein levels that help keep the body’s immune system on track.”
Which sounds like especially bad news in the current public health environment. It’s not all uniformly bad, however. It seems some flavours are worse than others.
The study, which combined real-world observation of e-cig users in the US with in vitro lab experiments in Australia, found the chemical profiles of some chocolate and banana flavours were especially toxic.
“Our study demonstrated to us that the name on the bottle is not what’s important, it’s what goes into the e-liquids that matters,” lead author Miranda Ween of Adelaide said. “Chocolate, in particular, had an unexpectedly high impact, killing almost all the cells and blocking the ability of macrophages to clear away bacteria almost entirely.”
Good regulation, not a bad ban
Interestingly, however, Ween’s overall conclusion is not that flavours should be banned, but that they should be regulated on the basis of sound scientific evidence.
“Our research shows that allowed flavours for e-cigarettes need to be better defined,” she said. “This could easily be achieved by limiting e-liquids to a single flavouring chemical which has been tested and safety concentrations determined – research that is, unfortunately, lacking for something that is so popular worldwide.”
Research that concludes by calling for further research – sounds familiar, somehow. As usual, it also sounds like good sense.
In the meantime, while we wait for that further research to be carried out, maybe better steer clear of the chocolate and banana vapes.
Photo: Alexander Stein