Vaping could lead to diabetes, Johns Hopkins researchers find

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  • Vaping is considered less harmful than smoking, but it also has risks.
  • A new US study found that e-cigarettes are linked to an increased risk of prediabetes.
  • The study concludes that the use of e-cigarettes should be discouraged.

The e-cigarette market is expanding, with vaping touted as a safer and "cooler" alternative to cigarette smoking, but the findings of a new study paint a different picture.

Frequent vaping can increase your risk of developing prediabetes (a higher than normal blood sugar level), according to scientists at one of America’s top medical research universities. And without intervention, this can turn into full-blown type 2 diabetes. 

“Our study demonstrated a clear association of prediabetes risk with the use of e-cigarettes,” said lead study author, Shyam Biswal, an environmental health science professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

He continued:

With both e-cigarette use and prevalence of prediabetes dramatically on the rise in the past decade, our discovery that e-cigarettes carry a similar risk to traditional cigarettes with respect to diabetes is important for understanding and treating vulnerable individuals.

Their study was recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study

The researchers analysed the health data of more than 600 000 people across the US – 9% (more than 66 000 individuals) were e-cigarette users with self-reported prediabetes diagnoses.

Those who vaped were 22% more likely to develop prediabetes than the non-vapers, they found. Meanwhile, cigarette users were 30% to 40% more likely than non-smokers to develop type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Said Biswal: “In the case of cigarette smoking, nicotine has a detrimental effect on insulin action, and it appears that e-cigarettes may also have the same effect."

Diabetes is serious

Despite prediabetes being reversible with lifestyle management, it is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. This chronic condition is a major cause of heart attack, stroke, blindness, and kidney failure, notes the World Health Organisation. A whopping 1.5 million deaths are attributed to diabetes each year, it adds.

This is why, based on the current study’s findings, the team made a recommendation for targeting the reduction in e-cigarette use.

"Our effort for smoking cessation has led to a decrease in smoking traditional cigarettes. With this information, it is time for us to ramp up our public health efforts to promote the cessation of e-cigarettes," said Biswal.

FDA authorises use of e-cigs

Just a few months ago, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorised a trio of e-cigarette products. The regulator said that it may help smokers cut back on traditional tobacco cigarettes.

"We were surprised by the findings associating prediabetes with e-cigarettes because they are touted as a safer alternative, which we now know is not the case," said Biswal.

In a separate 2019 article, Joanna Cohen, Bloomberg Professor of Disease Prevention at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that while research on the harmful effects of e-cigarettes was limited, it did show that the nicotine they contain can harm the developing brain. 

She advised:

The only group who should use vaping products are cigarette smokers who are trying to quit smoking, or former smokers who have successfully switched to vaping.

Co-author of the current study, Dr Michael Blaha, director of clinical research at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease, previously cautioned that although vaping exposes you to fewer toxic chemicals than smoking traditional cigarettes, “there has been an outbreak of lung injuries and deaths associated with vaping”.

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READ | Want to stop smoking? Try these 'quit friendly’ tools and programmes from WHO and CANSA

READ | Toxins form when e-cigarette chemicals mix, study says

READ | Vaping creates 'mental fog' in kids and adults

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