E-Cigarettes: Tobacco-Free, But Your Heart May Still Be at Risk

Electronic devices still carry the dangers of nicotine

woman smoking electronic cigarette

Electronic cigarettes, commonly known as e-cigarettes, deliver nicotine without the tar and smoke of traditional tobacco cigarettes. But doctors say they still carry risks. 

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Researchers know that the nicotine contained in cigarettes constricts blood vessels. However, they don’t yet know the cumulative damage e-cigarettes cause to your heart, lungs and blood vessels. Many experts urge everyone — heart patients in particular — to avoid smoking any product, including e-cigarettes. 

E-cigarettes produce an inhaled vapor from a flavored liquid which contains nicotine, simulating the effect of smoking. Preliminary studies suggest nicotine might do direct damage to heart cells, so heart patients should avoid vaping or smoking traditional tobacco products completely. 

Are e-cigarettes a safer option? 

Researchers in Greece measured heart function and blood pressure in 22 young adults before and after using e-cigarettes. Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos of the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Greece presented a scientific paper on the study at the European Society of Cardiology in 2012. He says the subjects showed none of the acute cardiovascular problems associated with smoking traditional cigarettes (including impact on heart pumping function and increased systolic blood pressure). 

Researchers saw a significant increase in subjects’ blood pressure after they smoked a traditional tobacco cigarette. After subjects smoked an e-cigarette, they saw only a slight increase in diastolic blood pressure. “This is an indication that although nicotine was present in the liquid used, it is absorbed at a lower rate compared to regular cigarette smoking,” Dr. Farsalinos says.

He recommends that researchers continue to study the effects of e-cigarettes. However, he says, “Considering the extreme hazards associated with cigarette smoking, currently available data suggest that electronic cigarettes are far less harmful and substituting tobacco with electronic cigarettes may be beneficial to health.” 

Other studies urge caution 

The Tobacco Advisory Group of the Royal College of Physicians published an advisory in October 2007. In the lengthy document, experts urge caution in the use of substances containing nicotine (and tobacco). However, the report says that prohibition and over-regulation might also lead to misuse of such substances. 

Preliminary biochemical studies suggest nicotine is dangerous 

Studies done at Brown University go to the heart of the matter — nicotine’s effect on cardiac tissue. Experts know that smoking cigarettes increases your risk for heart disease and that nicotine is the likely culprit. Vascular tissue exposed to nicotine shows damage. Nicotine literally bores holes through smooth muscle walls and leaves debris in its wake. 

The preliminary research shows how damage from nicotine can lead to atherosclerosis, or a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Whenever there is damage to tissue, inflammation and plaque buildup can follow. 

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Questions and advice 

Cardiologist Maan Fares, MD, did not participate in the studies, but is very familiar with the topic of smoking cessation and e-cigarettes. “I am often faced with general questions regarding the potential advantage of switching from smoking to e-cigarettes and vaping,” he says.

“I mention the risks of nicotine including the possible mechanisms such as direct vasoconstriction effects on the coronary arteries and direct harm to the layer that lines the inside of the arteries,” he says. “We must also recognize the risk for hypertension, and nicotine’s association with elevated glucose levels, particularly in patients with diabetes or pre-diabetes.”

What this means for you 

Even though you might avoid some of the cancer risks associated with tobacco use when you switch from traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes, you don’t eliminate your risk for heart disease. 

The American Heart Association (AHA) recently recommended that the government implement stricter E-cigarette regulation until further studies can verify the long-term effects of e-cigarettes on the heart.

Because e-cigarettes are a tobacco-free nicotine delivery system, you still receive a dose of nicotine directly into your lungs and blood stream, every time you vape. 

If you have heart problems you are particularly vulnerable to the effects of nicotine, so you should avoid e-cigarettes. 

There are helpful smoking cessation programs available which will help you to stop harmful tobacco and nicotine use, once and for all.

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