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Research Proceeds

Electronic cigarettes and tank systems for vaping are finally getting the research attention they so urgently need. And not a bit too soon – nay-sayers are clamoring for more research on long term effects of vaping, as well as on questions of market dynamics, questions about who is using the product and why.

Yea-sayers, most of them already convinced that even a cursory glance (no pun intended) shows vaping to be vastly less harmful than smoking, nonetheless need research results confirming their gut level convictions, in order to function with credibility in the vociferous public debate on the issue.

Last September, the US Food and Drug Administration (along with the National Institutes of Health) put its money where it's mouth is (or actually, given the delayed deeming regulations, where it's mouth wasn't yet!) and gave generous research grants to institutions around the country, enabling them to create "Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science" (TCORS) that will study both the "population" questions ("Is it a gateway to smoking?" "Does it re-normalize smoking?" "Do sweet flavors entice children?" "Are youthful vapers quitting cigarettes or about to start them?") and the questions more directly related to health ("What are the long term physical effects of inhaling vapor?" "How harmful is nicotine in and of itself, outside of its effects on pregnant women and teen neurological development?" "What novel harms do flavoring chemicals add to vapor, if any?") When these questions begin to be answered in a calm research environment, far from the shrill cries of the vaping opponents, we should inaugurate an era of progress toward making the product ever safer, and ensuring its adoption by increasing numbers of quitting smokers.

One such Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science is located at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, already noted for significant work on electronic cigarettes. One new study being initiated at VCU combines the population approach with a look at the chemistry of e-cig vapor, focusing not on the composition of the liquid but of the fumes emitted upon heating (as advocated recently by Belgian-Greek nicotine scientist Konstantinos Farsolinos). One technical complexity of vaping, one that has recently received increased public attention, is that extreme temperatures can raise levels of emitted formaldehyde, levels nowhere near as high as those produced by tobacco smoke, of course, but raised nonetheless. Add to this the fact that some vaping hobbyists create mods that can raise temperatures to unprecedented levels. Does this create dangerous levels of formaldehyde? Nobody really knows, although that does not stop vaping opponents from making a lot of noise about it.

Formaldehyde is a common substance in the air around us. Trace amounts of it are tolerated by the body, as well as by the FDA. What produces dangerous levels of formaldehyde? Cigarettes obviously do. Normal air apparently does not. What about e-vapor? Nobody knows, and we need to know, if only to stop UCSF professors from mouthing off about it.

Enter Robert Balster, a "behavioral pharmacologist" at VCU, who is overseeing four of the institution's TCORS projects in his capacity as head of the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies. "We need to know what's in the emissions, not just the ingredients," says Balster. To find out, Balster's engineers are building mechanical vaping devices that measure the effect of temperature, voltage, and so forth on the chemistry of the emitted vapor.

Then they'll go on Facebook!

Really! But not just to check their messages and post family photos. They'll be scanning people's postings to find out what people are doing to soup up their mods. "If it turns out that people are tinkering with the electronics to increase the voltage of e-cigarettes,... that's useful to know."

Balster and his team are using a combination of population research and chemical research to produce data that can keep vapers happy and healthy.