Customers puff on e-cigarettes
Customers puff on e-cigarettes at the Henley Vaporium in New York City December 18, 2013. At the Henley Vaporium, one of a growing number of e-cigarette lounges sprouting up in New York and other U.S. cities, patrons can indulge in their choice of more than 90 flavors of nicotine-infused vapor, ranging from bacon to bubble gum.The growing popularity of e-cigarettes has not escaped the notice of the industry's critics, who have stepped up calls for new regulations, including bans on their use in public places, even though the scientific evidence about exposure to their vapors remains inconclusive. Reuters/Mike Segar

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) produce highly-reactive free radicals, according to researchers at Penn State College of Medicine. Researchers have uncovered that the molecules, associated with cell damage and cancer, may pose a major health risk to users.

E-cigarettes produce aerosols, tiny liquid particles in a puff of air, instead of smoke like regular cigarettes. The researchers found that e-cigarettes emit high levels of free radicals, more than what you might inhale from a heavily air-polluted area, but less than what you might find in the smoke of a regular cigarette.

"There's a perception that e-cigarettes are healthier than regular cigarettes, or at least not as harmful as regular cigarettes," said John Richie, Jr., professor of public health sciences and pharmacology, in a news release. "While e-cigarette vapor does not contain many of the toxic substances that are known to be present in cigarette smoke, it's still important for us to figure out and to minimize the potential dangers that are associated with e-cigarettes."

"This is the first study that demonstrates the fact that we have these highly reactive agents in e-cigarette aerosols," Richie added. "The levels of radicals that we're seeing are more than what you might get from a heavily air-polluted area but less than what you might find in cigarette smoke."

It is illegal to market e-cigarettes that contain nicotine without the approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia. This restriction also applies to non-nicotine e-cigarettes that come in a variety of flavours that appeal to a wide section of society. Selling products that resemble tobacco products is prohibited in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. There are no such laws in other states and territories, meaning that non-nicotine electronic cigarettes (when marketed without therapeutic claims) can be lawfully sold, including to young people.

Still, more research must be undertaken. Richie says that this is just the first step to understand the harmful effects e-cigarettes may have despite being considered as a better alternative to regular cigarettes.

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