Electronic cigarettes are far from being a safe option to smoking and are causing harm to the lungs.

That is the conclusion of a study presented at the European Respiratory Society congress in Vienna. E-cigarettes, an increasingly popular option among smokers trying to quit, deliver nicotine through a vapour, rather than smoke. There is no combustion involved but the nicotine in the device is still derived from tobacco.

Researchers from the University of Athens in Greece aimed to investigate the short-term effects of using e-cigarettes on different people, including people without any known health problems and smokers with and without existing lung conditions. The study included eight people who had never smoked and 24 smokers, 11 with normal lung function and 13 people with either chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma.

Each person used an e-cigarette for 10 minutes and their airway resistance was measured using a number of tests, including a spirometry test. The results showed that for all people included in the study, the e-cigarette caused an immediate increase in airway resistance, lasting for 10 minutes.

In healthy subjects (ie people who had never smoked) there was a statistically significant increase in airway resistance from a mean average of 182% to 206%. In smokers with normal spirometry, the rise was 176% to 220%, while for COPD and asthma patients the use of one e-cigarette seemed to have no immediate effect to airway resistance.

Christina Gratziou, one of the authors and chair of the ERS Tobacco Control Committee, said “we do not yet know whether unapproved nicotine delivery products, such as e-cigarettes, are safer than normal cigarettes, despite marketing claims that they are less harmful". Moreover, the results suggest  they can cause "immediate harm after smoking the device" and she told Pharma Times World News that "they should not be promoted as a safe alternative".

Prof Gratziou noted that more long-term data is required, saying that approved smoking cessation products, such as Pfizer's Chantix/Champix (varenicline) and GlaxoSmithKline's Zyban (bupropion) clearly provide a safer option.

Smoking cessation drugs have been linked to serious psychological and physical side effects and ERS president Klaus Rabe told PT that pharmacological efforts to stop smoking have not really come up with the goods. However, he argued that the root problem is the strength of the tobacco industry and fundamental changes are required, namely sky-high prices for cigarettes leading on to an actual ban.