E-Cigarettes: What do we know about them?

Contributing writerMarch 25, 2012 

Have you seen someone smoking without any smoke? Chances are they were using an electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette.

E-cigarettes have been in the news recently and are becoming more widely available. They are sold online and in shopping malls and have recently become more visible at local retailers. They are trendy and smokeless and are marketed as a tobacco cessation tool. But are they safe?

An e-cigarette is a battery-operated device designed to look and be used like a traditional cigarette. They use a battery-driven heater to vaporize a liquid that can contain nicotine. The e-juice contains flavor and other chemicals inhaled by the user. Most e-cigarettes look similar to cigarettes, but they can also look like pipes, cigars, and even pens.

They were first created in China in 2003. Products currently available are either from China or manufactured in the United States.

Advocates of e-cigarettes say that because they are not burning tobacco, they are safer than smoking cigarettes since they do not contain tar and other toxins. Unfortunately, the fact that e-cigarettes contain nicotine, a highly addictive substance, continues to be a problem. But many advocate for the use of e-cigarettes to help those who want to quit smoking because smokers can decrease the amount of nicotine contained in each puff and slowly wean off nicotine.

The Food and Drug Administration has released warnings to consumers about potential health risks associated with e-cigarettes. One concern is that e-cigarettes may contain ingredients that are known to be toxic, albeit in small amounts. When the FDA tested some e-cigarettes, they found toxic chemicals such as diethylene glycol, which is used in antifreeze. Several other samples contained cancer-causing chemicals, including nitrosamines that are also found in tobacco.

Another concern about electronic cigarettes is that, just like regular cigarettes, the nicotine content varies, and there is no standard amount of nicotine contained in each puff. The FDA analysis recorded different doses per puff from the e-cigarettes that they tested. They also found nicotine in products labeled “nicotine free.”

There also is concern that e-cigarettes may increase nicotine addiction among young people. Of particular concern is the marketing to youth of flavored e-cigarettes, which are available in cappuccino, strawberry, and marijuana. Currently there is no age restriction on buying e-cigarettes.

Many stores also sell vials of nicotine liquid that are used to refill the e-cigarettes. These vials are extremely toxic to small children and animals if ingested or accidentally spilled on the skin.

Until further clinical studies about the safety of these products are done, consumers have no way of knowing whether e-cigarettes are safe to use. There is no standard for manufacturing e-cigarettes, and users may inhale potentially harmful chemicals. More studies of e-cigarettes are needed to know if they have a valid role in “weaning” smokers from nicotine addiction.

We do know that there are safer ways to quit smoking. If you or someone you love is looking to quit, check out the website smokefree.gov for tips.

Dr. Diana T. Yu is the Health Officer for Thurston and Mason counties. Reach her at 360-867-2501 or yud@co.thurston.wa.us


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