LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Secondhand exposure to nicotine vapor from e-cigarettes is putting young adults at higher risk of developing bronchitis and other breathing issues, a new study warns. If scientists can confirm this link, study authors from the University of Southern California say this would be a “compelling rationale” for banning vaping in public spaces.
Researchers note that e-cigarettes produce less particulate matter than traditional tobacco cigarettes, but the levels of ultrafine particles in e-cig aerosols can be higher. These particles may contain volatile compounds and toxic metals that can damage lung tissue. Despite this potential danger, there have been few studies on the possible health effects of secondhand nicotine vapor and even direct use of vaping devices.
The new study examined 2,090 young adults, starting in 2014 when most of the participants were around the age of 17. The participants, part of the Southern California Children’s Health Study, recorded their exposure to secondhand vaping, secondhand tobacco and cannabis smoke, and use of e-cigarette, tobacco, and cannabis products through 2019. They also kept track of their respiratory health during this time as well.
Specifically, the study looked at “bronchitic” symptoms, including developing bronchitis over the last 12 months, having a daily cough for three straight months, having congestion or phlegm without a cold, wheezing or whistling in the chest, or having shortness of breath while walking uphill.
Results show that between 2014 and 2019 the prevalence of secondhand nicotine vaping exposure increased from 12 percent to 16 percent. Meanwhile, secondhand smoking exposure fell from 27 to 21 percent. However, direct use of cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and cannabis products all increased during this time.
Vaping doubles risk of breathing problems
Along with more young people breathing in e-cigarette vapor, the number of participants experiencing bronchitic symptoms rose from 19.5 percent to 26 percent. Cases of wheezing increased by three percent (12% to 15%).
After accounting for secondhand smoking and cannabis exposure, actively vaping e-cigs, or smoking tobacco products, the study finds secondhand nicotine vapor exposure alone leads to a 40 percent higher risk of developing bronchitis-related symptoms. Secondhand vaping also increased the risk of experiencing shortness of breath by 53 percent.
The link is even stronger among the 1,181 participants who did not vape or smoke in the past 30 days. These young adults were over twice as likely to wheeze and three times more likely to have bronchitic symptoms. The study did not pinpoint a direct cause for this connection. Researchers say finding that cause could lead to new public policies regulating vaping.
“If causal, reduction of secondhand e-cigarette exposure in the home would reduce the burden of respiratory symptoms and would provide a compelling rationale for regulation of e-cigarette use in public places,” the team writes in a media release.
“Some may be comforted by studies that argue that nicotine use has not increased with the rise of vaping. However, it is important to note that the nicotine content reported on product labels and what is chemically measured can vary widely,” researchers warn. “This means that users may be unaware of what they are truly vaping and thus are at risk of unwittingly becoming nicotine addicts.”
The findings appear in the journal Thorax.