Remember those seven CEOs of big tobacco testifying before congress that, to the best of their knowledge, nicotine was not addictive? Well, they where lying.
Three Portland State professors spoke on different aspects of nicotine in the body and the comparative danger traditional cigarettes pose versus e-cigarettes on Feb. 25. The event was organized by the PSU Neuroscience Club.
Dr. Bill Griesar, professor of behavioral neuroscience; Dr. David Peyton, professor of chemistry; and Dr. James F. Pankow, professor of chemistry and civil environmental engineering, were all of similar minds regarding nicotine and e-cigarette usage.
“If you are definitely going to do one or the other, at this point our limited knowledge suggests you’re probably better off vaping than smoking cigarettes, but the long-term health effects of vaping are not known,” Pankow said.
E-cigarette flavor was the most prominent danger presented in Pankow’s section of the lecture. He said though many flavors are considered food grade, it does not mean they are safe to smoke.
The chemical makeup of the flavors, referred to as juice, are generally nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerol and flavor chemicals that change based on different flavors.
“Some flavor chemicals are surely more harmful than others when inhaled,” Pankow said. “Flavor chemicals that are aldehydes, like vanilla, are probably more worrisome than others like maltol, which is a common caramel-type flavor.”
Go caramel, not vanilla, he repeated at the end of his lecture.
Smoke compared to vapor was another subject Pankow talked about. He said having small liquid particles present among the gaseous smoke of traditional cigarettes allows the nicotine to reach lungs easier and thus be absorbed through the nervous system to the brain faster.
Griesar agreed that speed of drug intake is related to addiction: The faster the intake, the greater the potential for dependency.
“The faster the link between the behavior required to administer a drug—say, inhalation, which can be very fast—and the drug’s actions in the brain and those experienced effects, the greater the risk of dependence and abuse,” Griesar said.
Pankow compared the addictive effects of snorting cocaine and smoking it in the form of crack, the latter of which has been widely known to be more addictive.
Peyton’s lecture went over some recent studies of e-cigarette vapors, of which he said there are not yet many. Some of the studies had several problems because they only tested specific effects, conditions and brands over a short period or lacked human testing. The results were interesting, nonetheless.
For instance, in one study mice were placed in a box that was filled with e-cigarette vapor twice daily for one and a half hours. They were clearly breathing differently than the average smoker.
Those exposed to e-cigarette vapor showed reduced pulmonary bacteria clearance, and were less able to clear out viruses when infected with the flu. Of mice infected with the H1N1 virus, nearly 50 percent more died at the 12th day mark if also exposed to nicotine vapors.
“Nicotine was also found to increase the survival of damaged cells lining air passages in the lungs, thus increasing the risk that these damaged cells might develop into cancer cells,” Griesar said.
Griesar delved into the science of how nicotine is absorbed in the lungs—into the blood, then the nervous system and on to the drug’s target, the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.
These targets of nicotine are found in your body where the nerves meet muscle and in peripheral ganglia, where they can influence heart rate and other autonomic functions.
Nicotinic receptors are also found in the thalamus region of the brain and in many other regions. He noted the positive effects on neurotransmitters by nicotine action at these central nervous system receptors, and how that can be rewarding.
Griesar also said that nicotine was used for years as a pesticide and listed the many serious health risks to smoking, such as addiction, cancer, heart disease and emphysema, among others.
Formaldehyde was an area where Peyton spent a lot of time. His research showed the heating of e-cigarette juice to create vapor also released formaldehyde.
“[Formaldehyde was found when] heating to higher temperatures in variable-temperature devices, and also just using a couple of the fixed-setting devices that we have tested,” Peyton said. “At low-power settings using variable-setting devices we did not detect any of the formaldehyde related products, however.”
Formaldehyde, he said, is present in or can be released by many everyday items such as hair products and carpets. Though quite dangerous, on the bright side, he said, it is not accumulative; your body disposes of it, but it is reactive.
One of the flavors Peyton experimented with was café mocha juice.
“I’ve got to say, I do enjoy the smell of many of these,” he said.
Both Pankow and Peyton made a point of saying they were not entirely against e-cigarettes, but that they would like to find ways to make them safer.
“If I had to expose myself to cigarettes or e-cigs, there is not a question,” Peyton said.
His studies of the chemicals contained in and released by cigarettes and e-cigarettes showed much, much lower amounts in the e-cigarette variety.
“Most people can get away with smoking cigarettes at a pack a day for a few years without really compromising their long-term health,” Pankow said. “[But] when e-cigarettes users say they have vaped for a few years and are okay, that’s not proof that long-term vaping is perfectly safe.”