Over 200,000 Australians have either taken up the habit or switched from traditional cigarettes, but the effect e-cigarettes have on people’s health and lung function still remains a mystery to researchers.
A team of researchers at the University of Southern Queensland are hoping a new study, led by researcher Dean Mills, will provide answers around how the practice known as “vaping” affects lung health.
Dr Mills said given e-cigarettes were relatively new devices, very little research had been done on their effects.
“We have had tobacco smoking for the last 100 or so years, so we know the problems it can make, but vaping has only really been around for the last 10 or so years,” he said.
He said there were a “wide variety” of chemicals in both traditional tobacco cigarettes and the liquid used in vaping.
“In electronic cigarettes, the liquid is heated and it turns into a vapour that the user inspires into their lungs,” Dr Mills said.
“That liquid inside that vapour has an unknown amount of chemicals.
“So inside a lot of those vaping liquids we actually don’t know the composition or makeup of chemicals in there.”
The study will assess the lung function and exercise capacity of a cohort of e-cigarette users, aged between 18 and 35.
“We get them to breathe into a tube that measures the size of their lungs and also measures the speed at which the air comes out,” he said.
Participants are also asked to undergo tests on an exercise bike.
“During that test the cycling gets harder and harder, and at the same time we can measure how well the lungs are working,” he said.
Dr Mills said recent studies had not found much difference between the lung health of those who regularly vape and those who do not, but other modelling using animals showed a negative effect on exercise capacity.
“They used mice and they found that those mice that had been exposed to electronic cigarette smoke couldn’t exercise for as long as those that did not,” he said.
Dr Mills said the duration of exercise was a good indicator of lung health for most healthy people.
Imported vaping products less regulated
Dr Mills said many people switch to vaping in an effort to stop smoking traditional cigarettes, but that e-cigarettes were yet to be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) as a sellable product to help people ditch the addiction.
“Because we think we can buy it legally, or we could recently, and there were no big restrictions on it, that makes us feel it is safe,” he said.
“We think: ‘Well, it has to be safer than smoking’, but we just don’t know that much information at the moment.”
Dr Mills said ingredient regulation in consumable products in Australia was quite strict, but the majority of vaping liquid is imported, meaning it’s less stringently regulated.
“If it comes in legally or illegally, it still ends up quite a lot on our shelves,” Dr Mills said.
“So even though they can be very, very specific on what is manufactured in Australia, it is hard to regulate, unfortunately.”
In Australia, it is illegal to sell e-cigarette liquid that contains nicotine, but some products have been found to contain it, despite being labelled “nicotine free”.
A Federal Government ban on importing nicotine-based e-cigarettes will be put in place at the beginning of 2021.
Lobby group Legalise Vaping has been pushing the Federal Government on the benefits of e-cigarettes to curb smoking rates.
The group said a recent survey found 42 per cent of ex-smokers who now vape would go back to traditional cigarettes if a ban on e-cigarettes containing nicotine came into place next year.
The survey also showed 37 per cent of smokers surveyed would source e-cigarettes on the black market.
Campaign director Brian Marlow said e-cigarettes could reduce tobacco-related harm in society.
“Ex-smokers should not need to choose between vaping and going back to the smokes,” he said.
“We need to legalise vaping to ensure vapers can access regulated products in Australia when they need it.
“Vapers now form a powerful voting block — it’s simply not good enough to send them back to the smokes, should the vaping ban go ahead.”