The dental branch of the National Institutes of Health is sponsoring investigations into the consequences of smoking e-cigarettes. Many promoters of “vaping” — smoking the vapors produced by e-cigarettes — insist that their product is safer than regular cigarettes. As tobacco smoke is a mix of many toxic chemicals, calling their product “safer” is a relatively easy conclusion, but does that justify calling e-cigarettes “safe”? Since e-cigarettes are fairly new, little research is available on how they affect the teeth, gums and oral tissues. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research is hoping to change that situation by sponsoring studies researching e-cigarettes.
What’s in an E-Cigarette?
An e-cigarette imitating a tobacco cigarette contains liquid nicotine, propylene glycol to create the vapor and potentially other flavoring chemicals. While propylene glycol is considered “safe for consumption” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many reports note that it is a potential irritant to the soft tissues of the mouth and airway. (Glycerin is the generally safer substitute for propylene glycol, also found in many e-cigarette varieties.) Where the hazards and toxic chemicals come in with e-cigarettes appears to be with the various flavorings and additives meant to make the smoking process more “realistic” or enjoyable.
Are E-Cigarettes Harmless?
The official position of the American Dental Association, which supports the NIH research effort, is that “it is ‘virtually impossible’ to justify claims that smokeless tobacco and such newer generation products as electronic cigarettes and hookah tobacco ‘are somehow less harmful to the oral cavity than combustible tobacco products or without other adverse effects.’”
The e-cigarette industry also faces few regulations, leading to vastly different levels of product quality and content. According to the FDA, there are “significant quality issues that indicate that quality control processes used to manufacture these products are substandard or non-existent.” As a result, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, another arm of NIH, has this to say about the vapors from e-cigarettes: “Testing of some e-cigarette products found the vapor to contain known carcinogens and toxic chemicals (such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde), as well as potentially toxic metal nanoparticles from the vaporizing mechanism.”
So while the NIH is encouraging formal testing on the side effects of vaping, the Placerville Dental Group takes the same position on e-cigarettes that we take on the use of tobacco products. While the use of these things is a personal decision, the doctrine of informed consent requires us to point out that like tobacco, e-cigarettes contain harmful chemicals that irritate the oral tissues and have the potential to cause serious, even fatal, disease. Certainly the possibility exists to find an e-cigarette without addictive, irritating or cancerous substances. The majority of users, however, are not after that smoking experience. Therefore, we take the position that our patients are better off not smoking any kind of device, whether it be a pipe or cigarette, electronic or otherwise!