Photo Credit: K. Nacheff
It’s been seven years since electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) hit the U.S. market and the number of smokers using them has steadily increased. Today, one out of five smokers -- an estimated 9 million Americans -- smoke e-cigarettes either exclusively or in addition to the light-it-with-a-match variety. E-cigarettes have a similar look and feel to the real thing, minus the actual tobacco and smoke. It’s a mechanical version of a cigarette -- the tip even lights up to mimic burning ash -- with a battery that heats up a cartridge of liquid nicotine solution to create vapor you can inhale for a nicotine fix.
Problem is, e-cigarettes aren’t actually a healthy alternative to smoking.
Unlike other nicotine products like cigarettes, chewing tobacco and dip snuff, e-cigarettes don’t carry any health warnings, but that doesn’t mean they are less harmful (which 70 percent of smokers believe). Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isn’t yet regulating the product, manufacturers don’t have to disclose what chemicals are used in the nicotine solutions or potential health risks. “Because there are so few well-designed studies on e-cigarettes, there are a lot of unknowns about their use and safety,” says Cheryl Healton, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of Legacy, a nonprofit anti-tobacco organization in Washington, D.C. Before you decide to light up virtually, here’s a look at what we know about e-cigarettes:
They may cause cancer. Just because you’re not ‘puffing’ on a real cigarette doesn’t mean you’re no longer at risk for cancer. A 2009 analysis discovered antifreeze and other carcinogens and toxic chemicals in e-cigarette nicotine solutions. And eliminating secondhand smoke may be a myth, too: A 2012 study on indoor air found that e-cigarette vapors release carcinogens and toxins like nicotine and formaldehyde into the air.
They are not approved as smoking cessation tools. There’s no scientific evidence that e-cigarettes will help people stop smoking, which is why the FDA and the World Health Organization view them as tobacco alternatives, not smoking cessation tools. Boston psychiatrist Keith Ablow, M.D., disagrees. “I’ve seen two-pack-a-day smokers quit after a week or two with e-cigarettes,” says Ablow, who is currently studying how e-cigarettes help many smokers kick the habit. E-cigarette cartridges have varying nicotine levels so users can gradually reduce exposure and curb nicotine cravings, says Ablow. The actual device may satisfy a behavioral need to simulate the act of smoking.
They may entice kids to smoke. E-cigarettes, which come in yummy, kid-friendly flavors like bubblegum and cola, aren’t subjected to age verification laws. Only five states -- California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Utah -- prohibit selling them to minors.
They may get former smokers addicted again. Former smokers beware; this is not a case of have your cake and eat it, too. E-cigarettes will get you hooked again – they still deliver highly-addictive nicotine, which is what made you a slave to smoking in the first place. Even so-called nicotine-free cartridges aren’t a safe alternative because studies have detected low levels of nicotine in them. “Picking up these devices is like playing with fire,” says Healton. “If you’ve managed to quit, stay quit.”
And don’t rely on e-cigarettes to help you quit smoking. If you want to quit (or know someone who does) visit SmokeFree.gov for information about programs that are scientifically proven to work.