Author: Cassidy Morrison, Senior Health Reporter

Using a vape causes cancer-linked DNA damage to the mouth at the same rate as using a cigarette does, study finds.

The latest study from researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) further pokes holes in the notion that vaping e-cigarettes such as Juul and PuffBar devices are a healthier alternative to smoking.

Vapers who regularly use e-cigarettes saw just as much damage to DNA in their mouths as smokers of regular tobacco cigarettes, raising the specter of chronic diseases including cancer. Flavor pods in particular were the most dangerous.

Cancers are caused by such DNA damage, also referred to as gene mutations that, over time, may stop working normally or grow out of control and become cancerous.

This is not the first study to come to this conclusion. Canadian researchers found that mice exposed to flavored vapes consistently suffered serious cellular and molecular damage to their lungs.

Dr Ahmad Besaratinia, senior author of the study and public health experts at USC, said: ‘For the first time, we showed that the more vapers used e-cigarettes, and the longer they used them, the more DNA damage occurred in their oral cells.’

Smoking exposes the cells coating the inside of the mouth, the airways, and the lungs to dozens of powerful chemical carcinogens.

The cells in parts of the body that are directly exposed to smoke are damaged most acutely, with 150 mutations found to occur in each lung cell within one year, 97 in the larynx and 39 in the oral cavity.

The acceleration of mutations increases the risk of developing cancer.

For their study, researchers recruited 72 healthy adults and broke them into three groups: current vapers who had never smoked, current smokers who had never vaped, and people with no history of smoking or vaping.

Researchers recorded how frequently people used either device. Then, they collected a sample of epithelial cells, which line the inside of the mouth, and tested for damage to specific genes known to indicate damage to the genome.

Their tests showed similar levels of DNA damage between vapers and smokers: 2.6 times and 2.2 times that of non-users, respectively. Vapers who used pod devices such as a Juul saw the highest level of damage.

Flavored pods were the most sinister, causing the highest level of DNA damage among users, though the researchers did not say specifically what about the flavors makes them more damaging to cells.

While many brands of mint, fruit and dessert-flavored vapes have been pulled from the market, young people to whom these products are most appealing have still been able to get them. Meanwhile, menthol vapes are still permitted behind store counters.

He said: ‘The devices and flavors that are most popular and highly consumed by youth vapers, as well as adults, are the ones that are associated with the most DNA damage.’

Their findings, published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research claim to be the first to clearly distinguish between the DNA damage wrought by vapers versus smokers and to inform vape users about the risks they face by habitual vaping and flavored e-liquids.

Young people who use e-cigarettes and other vaping devices with nicotine are at especially high risk of developing a chronic disease linked to using the devices.

Teens’ brains are still developing and each new memory, skill or lesson learned means stronger connections are formed between brain cells.

Because addiction is a learned behavior, adolescents can get addicted more easily than adults.

At least 2.6 million teens are hooked on nicotine in e-cigarettes and the vast majority of them – 85 percent – say they most often reach for flavored pods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Dr Besaratinia said: ‘Clearly these results have significant implications, both for public health and regulatory agencies.’

While widely viewed as safer than smoking, the long-term effects of vaping remain a mystery and doctors fear there could be a wave of lung disease, dental issues and cancer in the coming decades in people who took up the habit at a young age.

Vape use has been linked to lung damage and airway obstructions that can last years even after quitting. Scientists have also found vapers are nearly twice as likely to suffer wheezing and difficulty breathing than those who do not smoke or use e-cigs, similar to someone living with asthma.