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Making Vaping Safe

It is turning out to be a complicated matter to establish consistent safety standards for vaping technology. The more we know about it, the better, and in an ideally sympathetic regulatory environment, industry personnel, distributors, vapers, and regulators can work together to learn more and improve safety standards, and to find ways to ensure that they are applied consistently.

It looks as though the FDA is willing to create a framework for such cooperation, certainly more so than the regulators of the European union, but unfortunately there remain those who would be delighted to find vaping irremediably unsafe, and the ongoing search for dangers seems anything but disinterested. The search for dangers, motivated by an animus against the product, is passionate, and any dangers that are uncovered, no matter how minor and trivial, are blown out of proportion by fear-mongering opponents and their journalistic allies.

Another danger has been unearthed, and although it seems fairly minor and easily remediable, there are those in the press and in the anti-smoking/anti-vaping movement, and in the press, who would inflate its importance. It seems that e-vapor increases the resistance of certain bacteria to antibiotic treatment and human immune response. These are the MRSA microbes often found in hospitals, prisons, military units, and the like – any installations where large numbers of people share sanitation facilities.

The alphabet soup stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, so it's clear that these little buggers (they're often called "super-bugs") already resist treatment. The experiment implicating e-vapor in strengthening their resistance was carried out in lab dishes, not in vitro (not in actual infected patients), and as a result much remains unknown, except that cigarette smoke produced the same effect at about 10 times the rate. The effect is produced by strengthening the biofilm that surrounds the microbes, and also by altering the pH and electrical charge of the surface. The smoke and vapor also lowers the body's immune response.

The research project was headed by Laura Crotty Alexander of the University of California at San Diego, and presented at a conference of the American Thoracic Society. After exposure to cigarette smoke and e-cig vapor, the bacterial cultures were tested for biochemical change, and then subjected to treatment with two of the agents used against them, peptides and microphages, and displayed heightened resistance to both of them.

One journalistic report on the study leads with the sentence: "E-cigarettes, deemed as a safer and healthy alternative to smoking, have been found to be as dangerous as the traditional cigarettes." Hmmm... let's see, the CDC reports that there were 99,000 MRSA-related deaths in 2002. How many tobacco-relate deaths occur per year? Quite a lot more than that. "As dangerous"? Hardly! It is ridiculous hyperbole like this that discredits the vaping-bashers. The article in Time does a little better. But it neglects to mention the 10-1 difference in the effect of smoke and vapor on the MRSA microbes, yet goes ahead and says: "The vapor from e-cigarettes is supposed to be safer than cigarette smoke, but not when it comes to fighting bacteria." What? Clearly at least 10 times safer!

While it would be foolish to ignore this study, it is equally foolish to blow it out of proportion. There are other treatments against MRSA which have yet to be studied in this context; the microbe affects limited populations; the effect discovered is limited to slightly raising virulence; and there are various other factors. Any rush to judgement on the basis of this study is clearly the product of an animus against vaping culture.