E-cigarettes appear to trigger unique immune responses as well as the same ones that cigarettes trigger that can lead to lung disease, according to a new study, published this week in the American Thoracic Society's American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
"There is confusion about whether e-cigarettes are 'safer' than cigarettes because the potential adverse effects of e-cigarettes are only beginning to be studied," Dr. Mehmet Kesimer, senior study author and associate professor of pathology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, said in a statement.
"Our results suggest that e-cigarettes might be just as bad as cigarettes," said Kesimer. "Comparing the harm of e-cigarettes with cigarettes is a little like comparing apples to oranges."
For the new study researchers observed 15 e-cigarette users, 14 current cigarette smokers and 15 non-smokers. Researchers found e-cigarettes have a signature of harm in the lung that is both similar and unique, which challenges the concept that switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes is a healthier alternative.
Scientists believe their research is the first study to use human airway samples to explore the harmful effects of e-cigarettes. They found e-cigarette users uniquely exhibited significant increases in neutrophil granulocyte and neutrophil extracellular trap (NET)-related proteins that contribute to inflammatory lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis.
Also, researchers found the NETs are associated with cell death in tissues lining the blood vessels and organs, existing outside the lung.
The study also found that e-cigarettes produced some of the same negative consequences as cigarettes.
However, the study limitations include the fact that of the 15 e-cigarette users, Five said they occasionally smoked cigarettes and 12 identified themselves as having smoked cigarettes in the past.
A 2016 Surgeon General's report found that e-cigarette use increased by 900 percent among high school students from 2011 to 2015. Also in 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration extended its regulatory oversight of tobacco products to include e-cigarettes.