The Dilemma Posed by E-Cigarettes

New research indicates that electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, could be a safer alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes, especially for those looking to quit.

We don’t advocate the use of either, but recognize that when it comes to reducing harm and promoting healthier lifestyles, e-cigarettes are a thorny topic.

A quitting tool?

Tobacco use causes nearly six million deaths worldwide every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In the U.S., more than 480,000 people die as a result of cigarette smoking, including more than 41,000 from secondhand smoke exposure. The cancer-causing aspect of conventional cigarettes comes through in the carcinogenic chemicals in tobacco smoke.

E-cigarettes deliver a flavored dose of nicotine and chemicals through battery-operated devices. Previous research suggested that e-cigarettes are just as bad for you as regular cigarettes, but this new study actually measured the effect of e-cigarettes, nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and conventional cigarettes on users.

For people using only e-cigarettes or only NRT for six months, results indicate that they had significantly lower levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemical levels in their bodies, compared to the tobacco cigarette smokers. The benefit was only shown when smokers completely gave up traditional cigarettes.

In that way, e-cigarettes could be a useful tool for people wanting to quit smoking tobacco, although their use in that way is not currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and may not be particularly effective. Although they may help some users quit, some people may find the use of e-cigarettes actually trigger a relapse to cigarette smoking, explains Dr. Duane DiFranco, Blue Care Network senior medical director.

He also said there are no reliable long-term studies about what e-cigarettes do to the human body.

“Because they are new and the chemicals used in e-cigarettes vary and are unregulated, there may be risks associated with their use that we are not yet aware of,” DiFranco said.

Or gateway?

In addition to not fully being able to vouch for their long-term consequences or validity as a quitting tool, the use of e-cigarettes by young people who have never smoked traditional cigarettes has been shown to be a potential path to smoking real cigarettes.

A study published in the journal Tobacco Control showed that vaping high-school seniors were over four times more likely to smoke tobacco cigarettes.

Researchers said the results add to evidence “supporting vaping as a one-way bridge to cigarette smoking among youth.”

A different study also found that teens are manipulating e-cigarettes to engage in the practice of “dripping,” by putting liquid directly on the heated atomizer of the device. Researchers noted that “high school students are using e-cigarettes at increasing rates; evidence from the National Youth Tobacco Survey indicates that ever e-cigarette use among high school students increased from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2015.”

The bottom line

If you’ve never smoked, don’t start, period. That includes e-cigarettes. As the American Lung Association points out on their website, until e-cigarettes come fully under the FDA’s oversight, a change that’s in process, “there are very few ways for anyone other than the manufacturers to know what chemicals are contained in e-liquids, or how e-cigarette use might affect health, whether in the short term or in the long run.”

If you currently smoke tobacco cigarettes, talk to your doctor about this new research and work with him or her to develop your quitting plan today.

“Whether to use e-cigs as part of a quitting attempt is a decision that should be personalized and is best made with the assistance of a professional, such as your primary care physician or tobacco cessation counselor,” DiFranco said.

Have you kicked the nicotine habit? Tell us how you did it in the comments. For additional resources, be sure to check out our Smoking Cessation page.

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Photo credit: Ecig Click

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