E-cigarettes and their flavours alter the body’s organs: study

Researchers studied JUUL e-cigarettes and found the effect of the pod-based-cigarettes on teen brains 'terrifying.'

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read April 15, 2022
cloud of smoke on black background

Roughly one-third of Canadian students between the grades of 7 and 12 have tried a vaping product in the last 30 days. GETTY

The daily use of pod-based e-cigarettes causes inflammatory changes to the brain, heart, lungs and other organs, according to a new study that warns these alterations vary based on the flavour of product used.

The work, published in the journal eLife, is the first to examine the impact JUUL devices — one of the most popular brands of e-cigarettes — has on the function of multiple organs and the ability of these organs to respond to an infection such as COVID-19.

“These pod-based e-cigarettes have only become popular in the last five or so years, so we don’t know much about their long-term effects on health,” said Laura Crotty Alexander, senior author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine and section chief of pulmonary critical care at Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System.

Roughly one-third of Canadian students between the grades of 7 and 12 have tried a vaping product and 20 per cent have used one in the last 30 days, according to the Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey. More than half of respondents felt it would be fairly easy or very easy to acquire an e-cigarette with nicotine if they wanted one.

Despite their popularity and accessibility, researchers said few studies have focused on the long-term effects of using such devices, particularly the more modern pod-based systems that contain significantly higher concentrations of nicotine.

Inflammation linked to depression, anxiety

To explore the inflammatory effects of vaping, researchers exposed young adult mice to the most popular flavours of e-cigarettes currently offered by JUUL — mango and mint — three times a day for three months. They discovered the mice experienced elevated inflammatory markers in their brains in addition to alterations in neuroinflammatory gene expression in the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain integral to motivation and reward-processing. Inflammation in this region has been linked to depression, anxiety and addictive behaviour.

“Many JUUL users are adolescents or young adults whose brains are still developing, so it’s pretty terrifying to learn what may be happening in their brains considering how this could affect their mental health and behaviour down the line,” Crotty Alexander said.

After a month of e-cigarette exposure, inflammatory gene expression was also detected in the colon, potentially elevating the risk of gastrointestinal disease, according to researchers. Inflammatory markers decreased in the heart, a state of immunosuppression the team said could make cardiac tissue more susceptible to infection from viruses such as COVID-19.

Although lung tissue did not show evidence of inflammation, multiple changes to gene expression were observed, which will require more research to determine the extent of the risk.

Interestingly, the team noted the inflammatory response of each organ to e-cigarettes varied based on the flavour studied. “This was a real surprise to us,” said Crotty Alexander. “This shows us that the flavour chemicals themselves are also causing pathological changes. If someone who frequently uses menthol-flavored JUUL e-cigarettes was infected with COVID-19, it’s possible their body would respond differently to the infection.”

“It’s clear that every e-cigarette device and flavour has to be studied to determine how it affects health across the body.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca