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Assessing health effects of e-cigarettes

Most hallways in Roswell Park Cancer Institute sport pastel-painted walls and colorful prints designed to brighten the mood, but not those in the Tobacco Research Laboratory squeezed into the back of the hospital. Here, green-and-white-streaked resilient flooring and faux brick walls give the place the feel of a 1960s classroom wing.

Maciej L. Goniewicz, 36, a Polish-born research scientist who studies the effects of e-cigarettes, is among those who work here.

The hallway belies the sophisticated equipment in the individual labs themselves. Specialized testing equipment includes a vented smoking machine, which can study the particles in cigarette smoke with precision, and centrifuges, evaporators, chromatographs and other devices that can separate compounds, including nicotine, from other substances found in blood and urine.

Researchers here are part of the hospital’s Department of Health Behavior, which focuses on two things: “We are interested in any behavior that can contribute to the risk of getting cancer, as well as modification of a behavior that can decrease the risk of getting cancer,” said Goniewicz, whose full name is pronounced Ma CHEY, Gon YA Vich. “So, of course, smoking is a main topic.”

Goniewicz grew up in southern Poland, about an hour from Krakow, and received his doctorate in pharmacy at the University of Silesia. From there, his interest in cigarette research took him to two post-doctoral internships: first in 2010 to the University of California in San Francisco, where he studied the addictive power of tobacco; then, two years later, to a smoking cessation clinic at Queen Mary University of London. He arrived in Buffalo last March to take a full-time research job.

How did the winter compare to what you’re used to in Poland?

In Poland, we have a cold winter, hot summer. We have four seasons, so I was expecting the same. I was told this winter is really heavy, it’s hard. It’s really long. I’m waiting for spring.

You first heard about electronic cigarettes four years ago while in California, and wondered if it was a passing trend?

There was some risk. Should I study this? Was it an important topic? From the discussion with other scientists, we felt it’s very similar to cigarettes, and we knew at that time that many smokers who try to quit smoking are missing the behavior – holding cigarettes, puffing on something. When I spoke with smokers in London, they would say, ‘I can use the patch, I can chew the gum with nicotine, but I’m missing something.’ I was thinking maybe electronic cigarettes can provide this behavior, and, of course, since these cigarettes provide the nicotine, which is the principle compound responsible for addiction, it would be similar to … some products available in the pharmacy, so there was some promise in the hypothesis. Now, it’s more popular and researchers already have completed lots of studies.

In terms of staff, how many researchers are in your department?

Four of us. Each of us is interested in a different area, but we are very complementary. One of my colleagues is interested in the design of cigarettes, the properties of cigarettes and how it affects the risk of getting cancer. He’s studying different cigarettes from around the world, and perceptions of smokers to new products. Another is doing research on the perception and marketing, labeling of the products. Why do people choose particular products? The third researcher is interested in secondhand exposure: how to measure the smoke in the air, how to measure the exposure. He also is studying water pipes – hookahs – and flavored cigarettes, flavored tobacco. These are new products, (and) we really don’t understand the risks right now.

In my research, I try to answer the questions about the safety of electronic cigarettes. Is it really safe to use these products? What might be the benefits going from tobacco cigarettes to electronic cigarettes and what might be the risks? Is there any risk of getting cancer, or lung disease or any cardiovascular diseases? We’re trying to understand the broader picture and the risk of using these products, including young people – adolescents, teenagers – secondhand exposure to the vapor, advertisement of these products. There are plenty of topics we try to cover here.

What have you learned about e-cigarettes from research that has been conducted?

We know about the composition of the products. What’s there, how it works, the characteristics of these products. We measured how much nicotine is there, how much nicotine people can get from these products. Now there are a lot of studies focusing on teenagers who might be interested in trying these products. The big question that still remains is ‘What are the long-term effects of using these products?’

At this point, what’s the most important piece of advice you can give to e-smokers?

Stay away from tobacco cigarettes. Don’t come back to smoking, not even a single cigarette. I would also encourage them to think about quitting electronic cigarettes. They quit smoking. They succeeded. The next step should be not only tobacco-free but nicotine-free. Just think about it. Maybe electronic cigarettes are just the step for you to be free, to be free from nicotine.


On the Web: Learn more about the work of Maciej L. Goniewicz, and how he has adjusted to life in Buffalo, at