Ohio State is studying electronic smoking devices. Credit: Lantern File Photo

Are electronic cigarettes really healthier than traditional ones? Ohio State researchers are trying to answer this question.

OSU’s James Cancer Hospital is studying the results of two studies conducted to examine the biological effects of e-cigarettes on health, compared with traditional tobacco smoking practices.

According to reports from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2011 to 2015, the usage of e-cigarettes tripled among current smokers. For high-school students, it increased tenfold within four years.

Peter Shields, deputy director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center and leader of the studies, said the growing popularity of e-cigarettes raises many concerns because their impact isn’t certain yet.

“There are people who worry that e-cigs won’t do anything to smokers, except delay their potential quitting, and then people are very worried about kids who are using these products,” Shields said. “The first question is that are they going become nicotine-addicted? The second question is that are they going to transition to cigarettes?”

Min-Ae Song, a postdoctoral researcher working on the studies, said users can choose the nicotine level in an e-cigarette, but the flavor-containing liquid itself is toxic. Although the liquid has fewer chemicals than tobacco, Song said, there isn’t enough evidence to show that toxicity levels in the liquid are lower.

“We don’t know what’s going on,” Song said. “We don’t know if it’s going be harmful for non smokers who use e-cigs … or the dual smokers who use cigarettes and e-cigs.”

To test out e-cigarettes’ effect on lungs, Song and her colleagues are doing a bronchoscopy study, which is a 15-minute procedure in which researchers put a thin tube into the participant’s nose or mouth to take sample tissues from the lungs. The tissues allow researchers to see e-cigarettes’ damage to the lungs, if there is any.

In the first part of the study, volunteers were separated into three groups: traditional tobacco smokers, regular e-cigarette users and non-smokers. Researchers then compare their lungs.

In the second part, researchers let non-smokers use e-cigs without nicotine or flavor, and test the potential changes in their lungs during the month.

But the study goes beyond looking at volunteers’ lungs. Researchers have another ongoing study to see if e-cigarettes are connected to cancers or other smoking-related issues, such as  heart disease.

In this study, researchers studied hundreds of smokers over the course of eight weeks. Some smokers were asked to switch to e-cigarettes, some to continue using only tobacco and some to use both e-cigarettes and tobacco. The goal is to discover if e-cigarettes increase users’ exposure to toxins and risk of cancer.