E-cigarette cancer warning as new study finds highlights mint and menthol flavour risk

Henry Bodkin
The rise in vaping has been described as a 'ticking time bomb' - AP

E-cigarettes marketed at teenagers contain potentially cancerous levels of artificial flavouring, new research has found.

The study of menthol and peppermint vapes revealed high concentrations of a carcinogenic additive called pulegone that US watchdogs recently banned in food.

Even moderate use of the increasingly popular products - available in the UK in supermarkets, specialist stores and online - put users significantly outside the “safe” threshold.

The tests were performed on e-liquids including the V2 Menthol and V2 Peppermint ranges, manufactured by WMR Products, a company since bought by Juul.

The pulegone additive, a constituent of oil extracts from mint plants, is believed to cause liver cancer if absorbed in high enough quantities.

While scientists behind the study do not know if pulegone is absorbed at the same rate through vaping as it is when eaten, they last night urged regulators to take precautionary action.

It comes days after Donald Trump promised to ban flavoured e-cigarettes in an effort to prevent children taking up the habit, and England’s Chief Medical Officer described vaping as “a ticking time bomb”.

Public Health England (PHE) encourages vaping as a means of quitting cigarettes and has argued that the habit is no more than five per cent as dangerous as smoking.

However, the body is coming under mounting pressure to change its stance thanks to a spate of recent studies suggesting e-cigarettes may be dangerous.

One of the tested products was manufactured by WMR Products, since bought by Juul Credit: Bloomberg

Simon Capewell, professor of public health at Liverpool University, said: “How many warning shots do the government need before it pauses to reconsider it’s gung-ho policy?

“It seems every week we are getting new publications from independent researchers demonstrating additional risks from e-cigarettes.

“Some of these flavours are proven carcinogens.”

Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina examined levels of pulegone in five e-liquids across three brands, and also one smokeless or “chewing” tobacco brand.

Even “light use” - roughly equivalent in terms of frequency as 10 cigarettes a day - exposed vapers to considerably more pulegone than the US Food and Drug Administration has judged safe to ingest in food.

The FDA has devised a “margin of exposure” scoring system, whereby anything below 10,000 is deemed potentially cancerous.

The Duke researchers found light use of the V2 products yielded scores of between 1,290 and 3,084 for menthol, and 1,868 and 1,973 for peppermint.

The products contained higher concentrations of pulegone even than menthol cigarettes, which have reduced their levels of the additive in recent years due to the health concerns.

“Our analysis suggests that users of mint and menthol flavoured e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are exposed to pulegone levels higher than the FDA considers unacceptable for intake of synthetic pulegone in food, and higher than in smokers of combustible menthol cigarettes,” the authors wrote.

“Our analysis suggests that users of mint and menthol flavoured e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are exposed to pulegone levels higher than the FDA considers unacceptable for intake of synthetic pulegone in food, and higher than in smokers of combustible menthol cigarettes.”

Recent data from the stop smoking charity ASH showed that in 2019 15.4 per cent of 11 to 18-year-olds had tried vaping, an increase from 12.7 per cent in 2015.

President Trump’s pledge to ban flavoured e-cigarettes followed a handful of unexplained deaths linked to vaping in the US.

Meanwhile a review by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine earlier this month found vaping may damage the heart.

The practice remains a key component of PHE’s efforts to eliminate smoking, however, and last week the agency invited the Independent British Vape Trade Association to its annual conference in Coventry.

Two NHS hospitals in the Midlands opened vaping shops on their premises in a bid to help people quit smoking.