Background: Quantifying relative harm caused by inhaling the aerosol emissions of vapourised nicotine products compared with smoking combustible tobacco is an important issue for public health.
Methods: The cancer potencies of various nicotine-delivering aerosols are modelled using published chemical analyses of emissions and their associated inhalation unit risks. Potencies are compared using a conversion procedure for expressing smoke and e-cigarette vapours in common units. Lifetime cancer risks are calculated from potencies using daily consumption estimates.
Results: The aerosols form a spectrum of cancer potencies spanning five orders of magnitude from uncontaminated air to tobacco smoke. E-cigarette emissions span most of this range with the preponderance of products having potencies<1% of tobacco smoke and falling within two orders of magnitude of a medicinal nicotine inhaler; however, a small minority have much higher potencies. These high-risk results tend to be associated with high levels of carbonyls generated when excessive power is delivered to the atomiser coil. Samples of a prototype heat-not-burn device have lower cancer potencies than tobacco smoke by at least one order of magnitude, but higher potencies than most e-cigarettes. Mean lifetime risks decline in the sequence: combustible cigarettes >> heat-not-burn >> e-cigarettes (normal power)≥nicotine inhaler.
Conclusions: Optimal combinations of device settings, liquid formulation and vaping behaviour normally result in e-cigarette emissions with much less carcinogenic potency than tobacco smoke, notwithstanding there are circumstances in which the cancer risks of e-cigarette emissions can escalate, sometimes substantially. These circumstances are usually avoidable when the causes are known.
Keywords: carcinogens; electronic nicotine delivery devices; harm reduction; smoking caused disease.
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