Nearly 40 million adults in the U.S. smoke cigarettes. It is the leading cause of preventable death, accounting for 1 out of every 5 deaths in the U.S. Although smoking has declined by 4 percent over nine years, sales of e-cigarettes have risen an amazing 143 times from $20 million to $2.875 billion in sales per year.
According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, 130,000 cases of lung cancer diagnosed each year are attributed to smoking. New research now demonstrates damage to your DNA from smoking stays with you for decades.
While much of the damage from smoking is healed within the first five years you quit, some DNA damage doesn’t appear to revert to normal.
The increasing sales of e-cigarettes may be from individuals trying to quit smoking, or from those who believe these electronic gizmos are a healthier alternative. Alas, vaping, or smoking electronic cigarettes that produce vapor instead of smoke, has its own list of negative health effects.
So, while you may believe e-cigarettes are healthier, you’re really just trading one serious health risk for another.
Smoking Affects DNA Methylation
Where scientists once thought the genes you were born with were the genes you were stuck with throughout life, now they have identified changes to your DNA, called methylation, that affect how your genes are expressed or may modify the way those genes affect your health.
The development of some health conditions are affected by your genetics. In some cases, DNA methylation will tell your genes to turn “off,” effectively changing how your body responds to the environment. DNA methylation is a signaling tool used for gene expression that’s vital to a number of cell process that control human disease.
Although scientists are still working to understand the complexities of how DNA methylation and genetic expression are connected, they have identified this connection in the development of cancer (although, as explained in previous articles, genetic changes that contribute to cancer are typically downstream effects of metabolic dysfunction, not the original cause).
Smoking Changes Your DNA and Increases Your Risk of Disease
Researchers have known that smoking alters your DNA methylation, but this recent study demonstrates how long those changes last and how widespread they may be.
Lead researcher Dr. Stephanie London, chief of the Epidemiology Branch at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, told Reuters:
“We don’t really know whether it means ‘damage’ to the DNA. That requires more study, using data outside what we have here. What we’re saying is that it’s a change to your DNA that can have a downstream effect on what genes are expressed at what levels.”
However, any change to your DNA by toxic substances may be considered damage. The amount of damage and the consequences for that damage is where researchers will be focusing further study. This study combined data from a set of participants from 16 other studies, using blood samples from over 15,000 people.
The team compared the samples from current smokers to former smokers and those who said they had never smoked. People who were currently smoking had over 2,500 genetic changes to their DNA.
After a smoker quits, much of the DNA changes revert back to their original state, but some remain changed even decades later. The researchers found 185 locations that were significantly different between people who formerly smoked and those who had never smoked.
DNA Methylation Affects Development of Cancers and Chronic Diseases
Smoking changes your DNA methylation, affecting your gene expression. Researchers have linked these changes in gene expression from methylation to both the development of cancers and the expression of cardiovascular disease.
London, quoted in Medical News Today, expressed her concern over the long-term effects smokers may experience:
“These results are important because methylation, as one of the mechanisms of the regulation of gene expression, affects what genes are turned on, which has implications for the development of smoking-related diseases.
Equally important is our finding that even after someone stops smoking, we still see the effects of smoking on their DNA.”
Although adverse effects of smoking during pregnancy have been well-documented, most media attention is on preterm birth, low birth weight, brain damage to the baby, birth defects and lung damage.
Only now are other long-term health conditions associated with prenatal or early postnatal exposure to cigarette smoke. Children exposed to smoke have increased risk of behavioral and developmental problems including attention deficit disorder (ADD) and other conduct disorders.
Other studies demonstrate links between prenatal smoking exposure and the development of cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes in adulthood. Further studies specifically link nicotine exposure to long term health conditions in children.
You Absorb Nicotine From the Air Through Your Skin
Breathing secondhand smoke triggers health conditions much like if you were smoking yourself. Exposure to smoke led researchers to question if the only way your body absorbed nicotine was through inhaling. Could you absorb the chemicals through your skin?
Nicotine patches are used to help smokers control their urge to smoke and theoretically help them stop smoking. In this case, the chemical is placed directly against the user’s skin and held in place with a patch. Is it possible to absorb nicotine from the air as well?
Findings from a new study demonstrate that your body can absorb nicotine from secondhand smoke or wearing clothes that have been exposed to smoke.
These results are especially important for children and teens who are exposed to smoking or vaping. Charles Weschler, Ph.D., co-author of the study and chemist at Rutgers University, was quoted in Science News for Students, saying:
“If you’re in a room where smoking or vaping is occurring, you’re taking in the smoke through your skin as well as your lungs.”
Researchers found the dose absorbed by the participants was not trivial and amounted to the same as smoking between 0.5 and six cigarettes. Lead researcher, Gabriel Beko, Ph.D., civil engineer from the Technical University of Denmark, said this was about as much as you could expect to inhale in a smoky room.
This means the amount of smoke you may be absorbing from a smoky room is greater than the chemicals you’re inhaling. Researchers also found that wearing clothing that was exposed to smoke also increases your absorption of nicotine.
E-Cigarettes Are Not the Answer
E-cigarettes deliver a dose of nicotine. In this short video you’ll discover more of the side effects you may experience from nicotine in your cigarettes or e-cigarettes. Studies demonstrate the health dangers in using nicotine, the active ingredient in e-cigarettes. Your risks may be slightly different, but they are no less dangerous than smoking tobacco.
Research has determined that individuals who quit smoking for at least three to six months have the greatest chance of stopping smoking permanently. While you may feel it’s reasonable to use e-cigarettes to help you stop smoking, the reality is that you continue to remain addicted to nicotine and engage in the same addictive activity.
E-cigarettes deliver a dose of nicotine, the drug in cigarettes to which your body is addicted, through an electronic mechanism that doesn’t contain any of the other harmful chemicals found in cigarettes. But while many would like to think the jury is out on whether vaping is harmful for your health, data from several studies published in early 2015 demonstrate otherwise.
Doing a Medline and PubMed database search on specific keywords, researchers gathered data from over 3,400 different articles and studies. From the analysis, they found nicotine adversely affects the cardiovascular, respiratory, renal and reproductive systems. It promotes the creation of tumors by affecting cell proliferation and increases resistance to chemotherapeutic agents.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people in America are addicted to nicotine than any other drug, and it may be as addictive as heroin, cocaine or alcohol. The Cleveland Clinic warns that preliminary studies show nicotine does direct damage to your heart cells and vascular cells.
This damage triggers an inflammatory response and may lead to atherosclerosis. Meanwhile, it is unclear whether adding nicotine to your body, the drug to which you are addicted, will help you stop smoking, or if e-cigarettes help or just get in your way.
Flavors and Heat Raise the Risk
In 2014, the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) took over 3,700 calls of nicotine poisoning in children from e-cigarettes. But nicotine is not the only concern if you vape. There are over 7,000 flavoring chemicals for e-cigarettes, designed to enhance the flavor and engage more users.
Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health selected 51 of those flavors to evaluate. They found nearly all the flavorings contained chemicals with known negative effects on your health. In a press release from Harvard, lead author Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science, stated:
“Recognition of the hazards associated with inhaling flavoring chemicals started with ‘Popcorn Lung’ over a decade ago. However, diacetyl and other related flavoring chemicals are used in many other flavors beyond butter-flavored popcorn, including fruit flavors, alcohol flavors, and, we learned in our study, candy flavored e-cigarettes.”
Co-author David Christiani, also stated:
“Since most of the health concerns about e-cigarettes have focused on nicotine, there is still much we do not know about e-cigarettes. In addition to containing varying levels of the addictive substance nicotine, they also contain other cancer-causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and as our study shows, flavoring chemicals that can cause lung damage.”
At high voltage, 3 milligrams of e-cigarette liquid can generate 14 milligrams of formaldehyde. This is slightly less than you would inhale in five packs of regular cigarettes. In an NCB News interview, co-author James Pankow, Ph.D., and professor of chemistry and engineering at Portland State University, said:
“It’s way too early now from an epidemiological point of view to say how bad they are. But the bottom line is, there are toxins and some are more than in regular cigarettes. And if you are vaping, you probably shouldn’t be using it at a high-voltage setting.”
US Food and Drug Administration Fighting the Tobacco Industry
According to the CDC, 15 percent of Americans over 18 smoke cigarettes. According to Tobacco Free Kids, 12.6 percent have tried e-cigarettes and 3.7 percent use them consistently. Although a smaller percentage of the market, the tobacco industry recognizes the economic potential behind e-cigarette sales and has wholeheartedly invested time and money into influencing legislation.
Battle lines have been drawn between the tobacco industry and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which wants to retroactively examine e-cigarettes, cigars and pipe and hookah tobacco for public health risks. A bipartisan effort of lobbyists and influential congressional allies are arguing the Deeming Rule could hurt public health by ultimately forcing smaller e-cigarette companies out of business.
The Deeming Rule, announced in May 2016, is a step the FDA implemented to allow the agency to “protect future generations from the dangers of tobacco use through a variety of steps, including restricting the sale of these tobacco products to minors nationwide.”
Flying in the face of multiple studies that prove otherwise, Chritian Berkey, chief executive of Johnson Creek Enterprises, a company that sells the e-liquid ingredient for vaping products, stated in The New York Times: “The FDA has blatantly ignored evidence that our products improve people’s lives.” Defending the FDA’s position against the tobacco industry, Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products was quoted in The New York Times saying:
” . . . [T]he marketplace has been the wild, wild West. Companies were free to introduce any product they wanted, make any claim they wanted, and that is how we wound up with a 900 percent increase in high schoolers using e-cigarettes and as well as all these reports of exploding e-cigarette batteries and products that have caused burns and fires and disfigurement.”
Trading Your Health for Profits
The largest tobacco company in the U.S., Altria (formerly known as Philip Morris Co.), has been funding the lobbying effort to overturn the FDA rule. With a growing e-cigarette unit, Altria distributed their draft of legislation that would eliminate the Deeming Rule for e-cigarettes already on the market.
The New York Times reported that two weeks after delivery of this draft to his office, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma introduced the bill with 245 words pulled verbatim from the tobacco industry draft. Cole received one of the highest campaign contributions from the tobacco industry.
In an interview with The New York Times, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Nita Lowey of New York, expressed her embarrassment that more than 70 lawmakers were willing to co-sponsor legislation originally drafted by the tobacco industry. She stated:
“For Congress to consider going backward in how we regulate the public health hazard is simply mind-boggling. It wasn’t that long ago that tobacco companies were telling the public that cigarettes were not addictive and denying clear evidence that they caused cancer.”
In a letter to the editor at The New York Times, former federal judge Haddon Lee Sarokin republished an opinion he had written 24 years ago, as he believes it is equally valid today, in regard to the e-cigarette industry, as it was back then. At the time, this opinion was heavily criticized by the Senate, causing him to be removed from tobacco cases.
“All too often in the choice between the physical health of consumers and the financial well-being of business, concealment is chosen over disclosure, sales over safety and money over morality. Who are these persons who knowingly and secretly decide to put the buying public at risk solely for the purpose of making profits and who believe that illness and death of consumers is an appropriate cost of their own prosperity!”
If You Want to Quit Smoking, Do This First
I believe the “secret” to quitting smoking is to get healthy first, which will make quitting much easier. Exercising is part and parcel of this plan, as research shows people who engage in regular strength training double their success rate at quitting smoking compared to those who don’t exercise. Healthy eating is another crucial aspect that can’t be ignored. In short, if you want to quit, here are the three basic tips to get you started:
- Read through my comprehensive free nutrition plan to get started eating right.
- Develop a well-rounded exercise regimen. It is your ally to fighting disease and to quitting smoking. Strength training is an important part, but also remember to incorporate high-intensity interval exercises like Peak Fitness, core-strengthening exercises, stretching and regular non-exercise movement (like walking and cutting back on sitting).
- Find a healthy emotional outlet. Many people use exercise, meditation or relaxation techniques for this, and these are all great. I also recommend incorporating the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). This can help clear out emotional blockages from your system (some of which you might not even realize are there), thus restoring your mind and body’s balance and helping you break the addiction and avoid cravings.
Once you are regularly doing these three things, then you can begin to think about quitting smoking. At this point many are ready to try quitting “cold turkey.” Predict your urge to smoke, and preplan healthier alternatives and distractions. Finally, if you’re a parent, talk with your children about the risks of smoking, smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes. The easiest pathway to not smoking is to avoid starting in the first place.