Although vaping is assumed to be safer than smoking cigarettes, new research has revealed that it triggers the same molecular changes that cause emphysema in cigarette smokers.

Vaping has been thought to be less dangerous than smoking because it does not contain many of the carcinogenic chemicals found in cigarette tobacco. However, new evidence suggests that the nicotine in e-cigarettes can still trigger emphysema.

Emphysema is a progressive lung disease caused by loss of elasticity in the lung tissue and damage to the lung capillaries. It is commonly observed in smokers, causes shortness of breath and is a contributor to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

Three protease enzymes were sampled from the lung fluid of the study participants. These included groups of non-smokers, smokers and vapers. Previous research has identified that the immune cells in the lungs produce these enzymes at a higher rate when exposed to cigarette smoke. The enzymes break down the lung extracellular matrix and destroy the lung alveoli, which is thought to cause emphysema. All three enzymes were found at significantly higher concentrations in both smokers and vapers compared to non-smokers.

The researchers exposed immune cells to nicotine concentrations resembling those found in e-cigarette smoking. The cells showed elevated levels of all three proteases, confirming that the nicotine in both cigarettes and e-cigarettes could promote the development of emphysema.

This study highlights the often not-publicised dangers of e-cigarette smoking. The researchers aim to further investigate the molecular effects of vaping in a larger sample size.