Flavored e-cigarette liquids and cinnamaldehyde impair respiratory innate immune cell function

Am J Physiol Lung Cell Mol Physiol. 2017 Aug 1;313(2):L278-L292. doi: 10.1152/ajplung.00452.2016. Epub 2017 May 11.


Innate immune cells of the respiratory tract are the first line of defense against pathogenic and environmental insults. Failure of these cells to perform their immune functions leaves the host susceptible to infection and may contribute to impaired resolution of inflammation. While combustible tobacco cigarettes have been shown to suppress respiratory immune cell function, the effects of flavored electronic cigarette liquids (e-liquids) and individual flavoring agents on respiratory immune cell responses are unknown. We investigated the effects of seven flavored nicotine-free e-liquids on primary human alveolar macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer (NK) cells. Cells were challenged with a range of e-liquid dilutions and assayed for their functional responses to pathogenic stimuli. End points included phagocytic capacity (neutrophils and macrophages), neutrophil extracellular trap formation, proinflammatory cytokine production, and cell-mediated cytotoxic response (NK cells). E-liquids were then analyzed via mass spectrometry to identify individual flavoring components. Three cinnamaldehyde-containing e-liquids exhibited dose-dependent broadly immunosuppressive effects. Quantitative mass spectrometry was used to determine concentrations of cinnamaldehyde in each of the three e-liquids, and cells were subsequently challenged with a range of cinnamaldehyde concentrations. Cinnamaldehyde alone recapitulated the impaired function observed with e-liquid exposures, and cinnamaldehyde-induced suppression of macrophage phagocytosis was reversed by addition of the small-molecule reducing agent 1,4-dithiothreitol. We conclude that cinnamaldehyde has the potential to impair respiratory immune cell function, illustrating an immediate need for further toxicological evaluation of chemical flavoring agents to inform regulation governing their use in e-liquid formulations.

Keywords: cinnamaldehyde; e-cigarette; e-liquid; innate immune cell function.

MeSH terms

  • Acrolein / adverse effects
  • Acrolein / analogs & derivatives*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / drug effects*
  • Inflammation / chemically induced
  • Killer Cells, Natural / drug effects
  • Macrophages / drug effects
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neutrophils / drug effects
  • Nicotine / adverse effects
  • Phagocytosis / drug effects
  • Young Adult


  • Nicotine
  • Acrolein
  • cinnamaldehyde