E-cigarette users had similar DNA changes in cheek cells to smokers, new study finds

This shows a row of vapes in an Auckland store.
This shows a row of vapes in an Auckland store. Copyright Michael Craig/New Zealand Herald via AP
Copyright Michael Craig/New Zealand Herald via AP
By Lauren Chadwick
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While the study did not show that there’s a risk of cancer linked to e-cigarettes, it provides some evidence to support that they are not risk-free.


E-cigarette users had similar changes to the DNA in specific cheek cells as smokers, according to a new study that provides some insight into the health effects of vaping.

The researchers studied the effects of smoking and e-cigarette use on the way genes work, which is known as epigenetics.

They looked at a common way gene expression is regulated by looking at DNA methylation - a process where a chemical group is added to DNA - in more than 3,500 cheek, blood and cervix samples.

“All cells within a person share the same DNA, but DNA methylation and other modifications, together referred to as the ‘epigenome,’ instruct diverse cell types to read out different parts (genes),” Chiara Herzog, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Innsbruck and lead author of the study, told Euronews.

The researchers found that cells lining the mouth had “substantial epigenomic changes” in smokers and showed for the first time, similar changes in the cells of e-cigarette and smokeless tobacco users who had limited smoking history.

The authors added that these changes had previously been associated with cancer.

While they cannot determine from their study that e-cigarettes cause cancer, the changes were “interesting,” and associated with cell growth programmes “often activated in cancer,” Herzog said.

“We observed that lung cells that were currently cancerous or developed cancer in the future exhibited the same changes as those elicited by smoking, indicating these alterations might be associated with cancer development,” she added.

She added that more research will be needed to determine whether e-cigarette users or smokers will have cancer later on. The study’s findings were published in the journal Cancer Research.

E-cigarettes ‘far less harmful than smoking’

Ian Walker, the executive director of policy at Cancer Research UK which helped to fund the study, highlighted that the research does not show that e-cigarettes cause cancer.

“Decades of research has proven the link between smoking and cancer, and studies have so far shown that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking and can help people quit,” he said.

“This paper does however highlight that e-cigarettes are not risk-free, and so we need additional studies to uncover their potential longer-term impacts on human health”.

A recent survey found that more than half of smokers in England inaccurately think that vaping is more or as harmful as cigarette smoking.

Nicotine vaping, while not risk-free, is "substantially less harmful than smoking,” according to the National Health Service (NHS).

"We only recommend it for adult smokers, to support quitting smoking and staying quit," the NHS says.

The authors state, however, that the study’s findings “suggest caution when broadly recommending e-cigarettes as aids for tobacco use cessation”.

Martin Widschwendter, a senior author on the study from University College London and the University of Innsbruck, added that exploring the epigenome can “enable us to predict future health and disease”.

“Changes that are observed in lung cancer tissue can also be measured in cheek cells from smokers who have not (yet) developed a cancer. Importantly, our research points to the fact that e-cigarette users exhibit the same changes, and these devices might not be as harmless as originally thought,” he said in a statement.


According to a 2021 Eurobarometer survey, some 23 per cent of people in the EU aged 15 and older said they currently smoked cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos or a pipe. The survey found that smoking has declined in the EU and UK since 2006.

More than one in seven people in the EU and UK aged 15 and older had tried e-cigarettes, the survey found.

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