Vaping may not be as safe an alternative to cigarette smoking as it was initially thought to be according to a new study released by researchers in the Preventive Medicine Department at USC’s Keck Medicine.

Because of the dangers of cigarette smoking, many have turned to e-cigarettes to minimize the damage associated with inhaling tobacco. However, increasing research efforts suggest e-cigarettes emit many of the same toxicants and carcinogens as those found in tobacco smoke.

Smoking e-cigarettes leads to unnatural chemical changes in our body’s genome, according to the study.

“The DNA in all of our bodies is constantly subjected to chemical modifications that can influence whether genes in our body can effectively be turned on or off,” Dr. Ahmad Besaratinia, an Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine at Keck and author of the study explained.

Besaratinia was quick to clarify, however, that while genetic changes are a natural part of human development, other changes can be from exposure to toxic or cancer-causing chemicals like cigarette smoke.

The study analyzes the chemical changes of two chemical modifications, LINE-1 and 5-hmC, that are known markers of smoking-associated cancers. The study was performed with three subject groups over time: exclusive cigarette smokers, exclusive e-cigarette smokers, and subjects that were non-users of cigarettes or e-cigarettes.

“Both vapers and smokers showed significant loss of DNA methylation in LINE-1 repeat elements and significant reductions in 5-hmC levels relative to controls,” according to the publication.

This observation indicates that both vaping and smoking can negatively impact subjects in the same way.

“Although we knew that smokers had changes in their DNA, this is the first time that vapers had similar patterns in their genetic changes,” said Dr. Besaratinia.

This study has serious implications for the future: vaping is not as different from cigarette smoking as once thought.

“These [toxins] are going to impact the gene functions or activity, meaning that important genes, for example, onco-genes, that give rise to tumors, or tumor-suppressor genes that stop tumors from forming or growing, might be activated or deactivated as a result of these changes,” said Dr. Besaratinia.

He hopes to take his observations and study specific genes in the human body to understand the direct impact vaping can have.

Dr. Besaratinia recognizes that his research so far is just the beginning of understanding the impact of vaping.

“The next step for us is to look at each and every gene and see how these chemical implications are influencing their activities or functions,” Dr. Besaratinia said.

The most important take-away Dr. Besaratinia hopes readers have is that they understand the dangers of vaping.

“Despite the common belief that vaping is safe or less dangerous than smoking, we see that these products are not risk free,” he said.

Dr. Besaratinia stressed that it is important for never-smokers to understand the risks of vaping and think twice before trying it out for themselves.

Sarah Johnson/USC