Do E-Cigarettes Cause Cancer?

E-cigarettes are an alternative to smoking the conventional cigarette. The components of one include a battery, an atomizer and a replaceable cartridge that is designed to hold a nicotine solution and often flavorings for taste.

It works by using a sensor that detects a change in airflow when the user inhales through the device. This begins heating the nicotine solution inside the cartridge until it evaporates and the resulting water vapor is delivered straight into the lungs carrying a certain dose of nicotine with it.

Close up of a woman inhaling from an electronic cigarette
Image Copyright: scyther5 / Shutterstock


The Japanese Ministry of Health has carried out research which claims that e-cigarettes contain 10 times the level of carcinogens than traditional tobacco products. Both formaldehyde and acetaldehyde carcinogens were found in the liquid produced by a number of e-cigarettes. These two chemicals have also been found in experimentation by the Center for Environmental Health (CEH).

It has been shown that when e-cigarettes are run at high voltages the vapor produced contains high enough levels of formaldehyde-containing compounds to drastically increase a person's risk of developing cancer – this risk can be up to 15 times higher than that incurred by long-term smoking.

At this voltage, smoking would prove to be of particular risk to users who use this as a way to increase the delivery of vaporized nicotine. As more recent versions of e-cigs are released which allow users to operate them at higher temperatures, the production of these formaldehyde-containing compounds, and the problems that they result in become even more common. These versions allow users the option to replace their own cartridges, alter the running temperature and consequently, the vapor produced.

Harmful Agents

There is no dispute as to whether formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are harmful when produced - both are listed as probable cancer-causing agents by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The issue lies in the question of whether formaldehyde-releasing agents are being produced. Research has found that when e-cigarettes are used at lower, more realistic voltages, no formaldehyde-releasing agents are detected.

The American Vaping Association has argued that such studies proving the alarmingly high production of formaldehyde are based on unrealistic vaping conditions and are therefore misleading to the public. They claim that e-cigarette users would preferably avoid using their device at a high voltage of 5V. In this setting, there is extreme overheating of the e-cig coil which results in the production of formaldehyde. In such a setting the 'dry puff phenomenon’ occurs and the puffs produced exhibit an acrid, bitter and unpleasant taste which does not appeal to e-cig users.

On the other hand, using the e-cig at the lower setting of 3.7 volts (considered realistic) yielded only trace levels of formaldehyde – this level has also been observed in an FDA-approved inhaler designed to help smokers quit.

Another study from Portland State University also explored the amount of formaldehyde produced with respect to the variable voltage of an e-cigarette atomizer. One has shown no formaldehyde produced at 3.3V, while at 5.0 volts formaldehyde levels up to 15 times higher than in tobacco cigarette smoke were measured. Here, formaldehyde-releasing agents (formaldehyde hemiacetals) were found – this is a combination of formaldehyde and alcohols. Not only was there no actual formaldehyde itself produced but there is also no evidence that hemiacetals are toxic or carcinogenic. In fact, it is even possible that these hemiacetals offer protection against damage induced by formaldehyde. Therefore, considering the hemiacetal risk equivalent to that of formaldehyde to calculate the risk of cancer may be unwise.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Dec 30, 2022

Afsaneh Khetrapal

Written by

Afsaneh Khetrapal

Afsaneh graduated from Warwick University with a First class honours degree in Biomedical science. During her time here her love for neuroscience and scientific journalism only grew and have now steered her into a career with the journal, Scientific Reports under Springer Nature. Of course, she isn’t always immersed in all things science and literary; her free time involves a lot of oil painting and beach-side walks too.


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  1. Mark Stave Mark Stave United States says:

    This is click bait about a study that has already been debunked for shoddy experimental design.  The real question is - could writing such crap cause cancer of the soul for the writer?  Could blood pressure be permanently elevated as the reader takes in sensational but inaccurate writing?  Could stress hormones released when a site bills itself as "medical" but emulates Gawker be damaging?

  2. tufur one tufur one United States says:

    Mark, you have misread the article. Afsaneh Khetrapal is pointing out that some tobacco control researchers are misusing their e-cigarette lab equipment and burning e-liquid to create headlines. He also points out a normal vaporer would never inhale the vapor these researchers are creating as it is unpalatable and in my experience similar to inhaling smoke from a burning newspaper.

  3. G. Karl Snæ G. Karl Snæ Iceland says:

    A new research by the Japanese Ministry of Health? What link?

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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