WASHINGTON — While e-cigarettes have been in the spotlight for their popularity among kids and an ongoing outbreak of lung injury, many have also looked to them as a potentially less harmful alternative to smoking cigarettes.
New research published Friday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests that adult smokers’ heart health might benefit from switching over to e-cigarettes.
The study of 114 people found early measures of improved blood vessel health, such as “vascular stiffness,” within a month of switching from combustible cigarettes to their electronic counterparts.
“The ability of our blood vessels to widen and provide more flow when we need it has been linked to long-term outcomes,” explained Dr. Rose Marie Robertson, deputy chief science and medical officer for the American Heart Association.
But that data is not specific to e-cigarettes, she cautioned. “We don’t have data proving the long-term safety of vaping,” said Robertson, who was not involved in the new study.
In the new study, those who switched over more completely to e-cigarettes, and those who had smoked for less than 20 years, saw greater improvements in their vascular function. So did women — and though it’s unclear why, the authors note that “female smokers face more health risks than male smokers do,” including greater risks for lung cancer and heart attack.
The results did not depend on whether the e-cigarette contained nicotine or not. The authors hypothesized that “early improvement appears to be unrelated to the abstinence from nicotine but rather from other toxic material produced by combustion” in conventional cigarettes.
Robertson said the study was well done, but its findings come with important caveats. For example, there were a number of factors that remained unchanged for smokers who switched, including markers of inflammation and platelet reactivity.
In addition, the study was conducted at one institution — the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom, “where the levels of nicotine provided by e-cigarettes are substantially lower,” she said, making it “impossible to translate this to products available in the United States.”
Earlier studies have suggested that vaping does increase cardiovascular risks — for example, finding that certain compounds in e-cigarettes can damage cardiovascular cells and that vaping can change blood vessels after just one use.
“The [new study’s] finding contradicts the findings of observational studies that find that people who vape are at higher risk of heart disease, because those studies are inevitably and irreversibly confounded by former smoking,” John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, said in an emailed statement. Britton was not involved in the new study.
Robertson of the American Heart Association said “the big message … is that quitting combustible cigarettes is perhaps the most important thing you can do for your health.”
E-cigarettes have not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for smoking cessation, but other treatments have.
When it comes to vaping, “saying it’s safer than cigarettes is not the same as saying it’s safe,” Robertson added.