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Flavors added to e-cigarettes can lead to lasting heart damage, study finds

Experts say that young people are most attracted to the wide variety of flavor options

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Photo (c) VioletaStoimenova - Getty Images
There is no shortage of research highlighting the health risks associated with vaping -- especially when looking at the additives that are particularly popular among younger consumers

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of South Florida has explored the flavor additives even further, and it found that these chemicals can increase the risk of lasting heart damage.

“The flavored electronic nicotine delivery systems widely popular among teens and young adults are not harm-free,” said researcher Sami Noujaim, PhD. “Altogether, our findings in the cells and mice indicate that vaping does interfere with the normal functioning of the heart and can potentially lead to cardiac rhythm disturbances.”

Compromising heart health

The researchers conducted experiments on both young mice and human cardiac cells to better understand how flavor additives in e-cigarettes can compromise heart health. In all of the trials, both the mice and the human cells were exposed to several different flavor additives, as well as e-vapors that didn’t contain flavorings, to understand how the health risks change. 

While e-cigarettes pose a threat to consumers’ health without adding flavors, the researchers learned that the flavor additives only exacerbated those health risks in both mice and human cells. 

For the mice, the researchers observed several changes to their normal heart functioning. The primary disturbance was heart rate, as the mice exposed to e-cigarette flavor additives were more likely to develop ventricular tachycardia, which speeds up the natural heart rate. However, other mice were also more susceptible to a slowed heart rate variability, which means the time between heartbeats is slower; this typically happens when the body is under stress, and it can increase the risk for heart disease over time. 

The researchers noted similar effects to the human cardiac cells. Even before exposing the cells to the flavor additives, the e-cigarette vapor alone affected how fast the cells were able to beat. As the researchers added both nicotine and flavoring, the cells became even more compromised, though the worst outcomes came from the addition of the flavoring.  

“This experiment told us that the flavoring chemicals added to vaping devices can increase harm beyond what the nicotine alone can do,” Dr. Noujaim said. 

Tightening restrictions

Despite efforts to regulate e-cigarettes -- especially in recent months as experts warned about the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic -- many young people continue to seek out flavored vaping options. The researchers hope that these findings can help cut down on the use of e-cigarettes among this demographic.

“Our research matters because regulation of the vaping industry is a work in progress,” said Dr. Noujaim. “The FDA needs input from the scientific community about all the possible risks of vaping in order to effectively regulate electronic nicotine delivery systems and protect the public’s health. At USF Health, in particular, we will continue to examine how vaping may adversely affect cardiac health.”

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