Are Electronic Cigarettes Safe?

Are Electronic Cigarettes Safer to Use than Conventional Cigarettes?

13 comments   By Andrea Peirce, BA, Writer/Editor  |  Monday, October 28, 2013

Pictured: Electronic Cigarette

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered vaporizers that deliver nicotine and other additives in an aerosol format. An LED light at the tip simulates burning tobacco.


Update: On April 24, 2014,  the US Food and Drug Administration proposed new rules that would expand its regulatory authority to include electronic cigarettes. As reported in The New York Times, the regulations would ban the sale of e-cigarettes, cigars, and pipe tobacco to Americans under 18, and would require that people buying them show photo identification to prove their age. Below is a post that addresses the FDA’s concerns on the safety of e-cigarettes, featuring assistant director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Tobacco Cessation Program, Jack E. Burkhalter

Many smokers around the world are choosing electronic cigarettes (also known as e-cigarettes) in the belief that they are less damaging to their health. Millions of Americans have joined the trend since the tobacco-free devices were introduced domestically in 2007, with sales estimated to reach $1 billion this year.

Although they differ in shape and size, e-cigarettes basically all function in the same way. The user inhales through a mouthpiece, triggering a sensor that turns on a battery-powered heater. This action vaporizes liquid nicotine and activates a light at the tip.

The heater also vaporizes substances such as propylene glycol and glycerol to produce theatrical smoke similar to the white puff produced when exhaling tobacco cigarettes. Flavorings such as mint, chocolate, and bubblegum are often added.

Among the new users are many young people. The number that have tried e-cigarettes doubled from 2011 to 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which estimates that a total of 1.78 million middle and high school children have experimented with the devices.

As the assistant director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Tobacco Cessation ProgramJack E. Burkhalter hears questions and concerns about the safety of e-cigarettes every day.

Many Unknowns

Dr. Burkhalter says he often hears smokers claim e-cigarettes must be healthier than conventional cigarettes because they do not contain tobacco. But e-cigarettes do contain a liquid form of nicotine, a highly addictive tobacco component that may cause changes in the developing brains of young people. And the consequences of long-term nicotine use in adults have not even been fully studied, Dr. Burkhalter explains.

“Another problem is that we have no way of knowing what’s in a given product,” Dr. Burkhalter says, as manufacturers and types of e-cigarettes vary widely. “There is no one product — so it is impossible to determine whether any given e-cigarette is in fact safer than a conventional one, or safer than another brand of e-cigarette.”

Most electronic cigarettes sold in the United States are imported from China, which does not regulate or standardize the products. Domestic e-cigarettes are not government regulated, either. As a result, users are left in the dark regarding how much nicotine or other substances they are inhaling.

What those other substances might be is yet to be determined. While more research on the topic is needed, some studies indicate that e-cigarettes may contain a variety of chemicals, from suspected carcinogens to heavy metals and airway irritants.

Nor has much research been done to determine the health impact of inhaling e-cigarette vapors into the lungs.

“So while they may seem to be safer compared to tobacco cigarettes because they don’t contain tobacco and tobacco smoke, we can’t really quantify if that is the case,” Dr. Burkhalter says. “Overall, I hope for the best—but fear the worst.”

Source: Sloan Kettering


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