Weighing the Evidence on Electronic Cigarettes

Electronic cigarette

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that deliver vaporized doses of nicotine that may be inhaled. Manufacturers of these electronic cigarettes say that they are a good alternative for smokers who want to avoid inhaling smoke, though evidence shows that some may still contain harmful chemicals. If you currently use or are thinking of using e-cigarettes to help you quit smoking entirely, here’s what I want you to know:

How do they work?
E-cigarettes are usually thin cylinders that consist of a mouthpiece (also called a cartridge) that contains a nicotine solution; an atomizer that heats up the solution and generates vapor; and a battery. They are often designed to look like cigarettes, cigars, pipes or pens. Many are reusable with replacement cartridges, though some are disposable. When the user inhales or pushes a button, the device activates and delivers the vaporized nicotine. The vapors may also be flavored, and some models allow users to choose whether they want to include nicotine in the vapor.

Are they effective for kicking the habit?
As e-cigarettes have become popular only recently, there is limited data about both their safety and how effective they are at helping people to quit smoking. One recent study published in The Lancet suggests that they are as effective as nicotine patches at helping people to quit. However, since they still deliver nicotine, they can cause or continue nicotine addiction.

Are they safe?
Much about the safety of e-cigarettes remains unknown as they have not yet been thoroughly studied. They do lack many of the toxic chemicals and byproducts found in tobacco smoke, but an FDA analysis found that some e-cigarettes contain carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals also found in tobacco cigarettes) and chemicals like diethylene glycol that are also found in antifreeze. The vapors may also contain some potentially unsafe metals. The amount of nicotine that these cigarettes supply is also unreliable, so consumers can’t be completely sure how much they are getting with each breath.

Alarmingly, e-cigarette use by our nation’s teens more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, and the wide variety of available flavors is making them even more appealing to children. Studies suggest e-cigarettes may actually provide a gateway into nicotine or tobacco addiction, which is why children and people who do not smoke should never use them. About half of states have passed laws restricting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, but in many states there are currently no age restrictions.

E-cigarettes are certainly better than smoking tobacco, but adult smokers making the switch should appreciate that they are not as good as quitting entirely. Even though our bodies are avoiding the many toxic elements found in regular cigarettes, no amount of nicotine is good for you. Millions of people quit smoking without the aid of e-cigarettes, so be sure to try and re-try your other options to rid your body of nicotine quickly and for good, even if you are using the e-cigarettes as a bridge. With determination, patience and some creative quitting strategies, you can arrive at the finish line.