Flavoring agents have been banned from use in cigarettes in the United States since 2009, when the Family Smoking and Tobacco Prevention Act was passed, but they are still allowed in other products like chewing tobacco and electronic cigarettes. A large part of the reason why the use of these flavor additives is criticized is that it makes tobacco products more appealing to young people. However, it turns out that there might be another downside. According to a study from scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a popular e-cigarette flavoring agent has been shown to have serious, damaging effects on the lungs.
Cinnamaldehyde, which is the chemical that gives cinnamon its flavor and smell, is a common, food-safe flavoring agent. It’s also used in essential oils and candles, and it’s been proven effective as an antifungal. Cinnamaldehyde occurs naturally in the bark of cinnamon trees, but it can also be made synthetically.
Despite being safe for food purposes, it turns out that heating or burning it can cause chemical changes that might have harmful effects on the body. In the UNC study, researchers exposed cultures of human bronchial epithelial cells (cells lining the inside of the bronchial tubes in the lungs) to e-liquids and aerosols containing cinnamon flavoring. They then used a high-speed camera to measure the response of the cilia, little hair-like structures that line the surface of cells and beat in a rhythmic pattern, to different concentrations of cinnamaldehyde. The pattern is measured in cilia beat frequency (CBF). Exposure to cinnamaldehyde disrupted the function of the cilia and slowed down the CBF in the cells.
What does this actually mean? Cilia perform an important function in the body, clearing out mucus and other foreign substances from the airway. Consider all the things that you breathe in when you’re walking around – pollutants, bacteria, germs – and what would happen if your body was unable to filter them out. You’re likely to end up with infections in your lungs, as well as other pulmonary problems like bronchitis.
Cinnamaldehyde isn’t the only e-cigarette flavoring agent that has harmful effects on the lungs, merely the latest. Another flavoring called diacetyl has a buttery flavor, and it’s frequently used in microwave popcorn in addition to other food products and tobacco. It’s also linked to a lung condition known as bronchiolitis obliterans, or popcorn lung, which damages the airways and makes you cough and feel short of breath.
It’s possible that other flavoring agents could also prove to be dangerous, but more studies need to be done. The FDA has issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking related to tobacco flavoring, asking the public for input on how it should be regulated.
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