Can vaping cause changes in our cells?

You may have seen recent media coverage of a study that looked at changes in different types of cells from people who smoked and people who vaped. In this article, we take a closer look at what the researchers did, what they found and what the results of the study could mean. 

Does this study show that vaping causes cancer? 

No. The type of change that this study looked at is different from changes to a cell’s DNA sequence (mutations). This study shows that some changes were there but not what they might be doing.  So, we don’t have enough information yet to understand what these findings mean in terms of any potential health effects. 

E-cigarettes haven’t been around for long enough for us to know what their longer-term health effects could be. So, vaping isn’t risk-free and children and people who have never smoked shouldn’t vape. But research overall still finds that legal vaping is far less harmful than smoking and can help people who smoke to stop. 

What did the researchers do?

The researchers looked at chemical ‘marks’ that add information to the genetic code in our DNA. This is called epigenetics. It’s a bit like highlighting or adding notes to a page in a book – the words themselves don’t change, but we read them differently. The epigenetic marks affect how our cells ‘read’ the instructions in their genes. 

Epigenetic changes ‘turn on’ or ‘turn off’ genes. They’re a way for cells to respond to what’s happening around them by following the instructions from the right gene(s). Epigenetic changes can be temporary and reverse when they’re no longer needed, whereas genetic mutations in our DNA tend to be permanent.  

In this study, the researchers looked into a type of epigenetic change called methylation, in which a small molecule (made up of one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms, a ‘methyl group’) gets attached to some of the building blocks of DNA. In particular, they focused on methylation in different types of cells in people who smoked but also looked at it in a small number of people who vaped and another small group of people who used smokeless tobacco. 

What did the study find?

The study found methylation changes in cells taken from people who smoked, including cheek (which are directly exposed to smoke), cervical (which aren’t) and blood cells. The kind of changes seen varied depending on the type of cell. As mentioned above, epigenetic changes can be temporary, enabling cells to respond to their environment and then stop when the response is no longer needed. The researchers found variation in methylation patterns depending on how long someone had smoked for, and some changes were only seen in samples from people who currently smoked and not in people who had stopped smoking.  

The researchers also compared methylation changes in cell DNA samples from people who vaped with those from people who smoked. They found some similarities between the kinds of changes seen in people who vaped and people who smoked. 

What does it mean?

This research is at an early stage, so we don’t have enough information yet to understand what the findings mean. For example, the study looked at some changes that were seen in cell DNA samples, not how the cells with those changes were behaving compared to cells without the changes. 

When two things occur together, it could mean that: 

  1. one is causing the other;  
  2. they could also be there by chance; or  
  3. they could both be caused by a third factor that we don’t know yet.  

So, the epigenetic changes could be part of our cells’ response to cigarette smoke or e-cigarette vapour, they could be unrelated or they could be caused by something else that was affecting both the study participants who smoked and the participants who vaped.  

There were also some limitations to what the study was able to do, for example, participants who vaped may have smoked in the past, so we can’t be completely sure that the changes seen weren’t caused by previous smoking.  

Should I stop vaping?

If you used to smoke and are vaping to help you to stay off tobacco, the most important thing is not to go back to smoking. So, if you’re thinking of stopping vaping, make sure you only do so if you think you won’t start smoking again. If you think there’s a risk that you’ll smoke if you stop vaping, talk to your free local stop smoking service, GP or pharmacist for advice on stopping vaping or switching to an alternative stop smoking tool. 

Because vaping isn’t risk free, it’s important that children and people who have never smoked don’t start to vape. By contrast, however, decades of research have proven the harmful effects of smoking, which kills one person every five minutes in the UK. Research so far has found that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking and can help people to stop. So, if you smoke and want to stop, e-cigarettes are an option.  

What could epigenetics research mean in the future?

Epigenetics is an interesting area of research and we look forward to seeing what future studies can tell us about cancer and how it develops.  

What are the UK governments doing about smoking and vaping?

In October 2023, the UK Government announced plans to create the first ever smokefree generation by raising the age of sale of tobacco as well as action to tackle youth vaping. Today, those plans are being introduced in Parliament as the Tobacco and Vapes Bill. 

Under the Bill, anyone born on or after 1 January 2009 will never legally be able to be sold tobacco. 

CML Alliance
Enable registration in settings - general
Compare items
  • Total (0)
Shopping cart