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Campus smoking lab investigates effects of e-cigs

by Maya Washburn

Is vaping really a better option than traditional smoking? FIU researchers want to find out.

FIU’s Clinical Research Lab for Tobacco Smoking looks at the addiction and toxicity profile of emerging tobacco use methods and ways to reduce their harm. With several newly funded projects, the lab has just begun recruitment efforts for a variety of studies looking at e-cigarettes.

These studies aim to provide public health practitioners, policymakers and regulators with evidence that will allow them to respond to the growth of e-cigarette use among young people in the US and reduce its harm. 

“Our research will help create evidence to inform regulatory and policy solutions to the tobacco epidemic, especially those related to emerging tobacco products popular among youth such as e-cigarettes,” said Wasim Maziak, who serves as principal investigator at the lab.

In the new upcoming nicotine reduction study, participants will smoke e-cigarettes throughout three 60-minute sessions, with the nicotine content starting at five percent and decreasing each time. Five percent is the standard amount of nicotine in a Juul pod.

The researchers plan to study the effects on up to 210 subjects between the ages of 21 and 25 who have a history of e-cigarette use.

Researchers at the lab will look at both objective and subjective data to determine how decreased nicotine affects users. The four main data domains that will be studied are user perception, toxicity, lung function and addiction.

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Members of the research team, from left to right: Katherine Pita, Wei Li, Rime Jebai and Tarana Ferdous

Katherine Pita, lab manager and FIU alumna, said that the lab aims to be a comfortable environment for participants to replicate a relaxing environment in which someone may smoke in at home.

“We understand people come from different walks of life…we strive to ensure that the lab procedures are minimally intrusive to participants,” said Pita.

The researchers emphasized that there are too many unknowns as to the long-term dangers of e-cigarette usage because it is a new phenomenon.

“Recent studies showed that e-cigarettes might have effects on several organs of the body,” said PhD student Rime Jebai. “They might have adverse cardiovascular, respiratory, mental, or reproductive health effects.”

Ph.D. student Wei Li emphasized that e-cigarettes are especially dangerous for adolescents, as they can impact brain development. E-cigarettes were the most-used tobacco product among middle and high school students in the U.S. in 2020, according to the CDC.

“For a lot of young people that have never used any tobacco products, e-cigarettes are attractive because of the flavors, design, and marketing as harmless products,” said Li. “It attracts them to use it, and when they want to get more nicotine, they may turn to cigarettes.”

Pita pointed out that while e-cigarettes are seen as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, there are still many unknown effects, and the lab aims to study some of these effects. Jebai hopes that the results of the lab’s studies will guide policymaker decisions on e-cigarette regulation.

“The findings will help regulate tobacco use to decrease morbidity and mortality related to tobacco,” said Jebai. “This study will address policies regarding nicotine strength and the tobacco product.”

Maziak, a professor of epidemiology, started the lab in 2017 and it became the first clinical lab to research emerging tobacco use methods, such as hookah and e-cigarettes, in South Florida.

The lab, housed in Academic Health Center 3 at the Modesto Maidique Campus, has since gained increasing support from federal agencies, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Those interested in participating in the current study should contact 305-348-1691 or e-cigarettestudy@fiu.edu.

This story originally ran on FIU News.