Are E-Cigarettes Safe? Jury Is Still Out

Posted on November 1st, 2013
Posted in Addiction

The e-cigarette is a relatively new invention and a way of getting a hit of nicotine without the smoke and the toxic additives of cigarettes. The purposes of these devices include being able to smoke without the carcinogenic and toxic substances, being able to smoke without producing offensive and harmful secondhand smoke, and attempting to quit smoking for good.

These electronic smoking devices show promise for helping people to quit smoking. The Food and Drug Administration has authority over tobacco and tobacco products, a category to which e-cigarettes belong. The FDA has yet to decide how to officially handle e-cigarettes, but so far it has sent out the message that smokers should continue to use patches and other pharmaceutical cessation products to quit and stay away from e-cigarettes. Many are asking why.

How E-Cigarettes Work

An e-cigarette looks much like a traditional cigarette, but it contains no tobacco and does not need to be lit. It contains a small vial of a solution of nicotine in water. When activated, a battery in the e-cigarette heats up the vial to vaporize it. The “smoker” inhales the vapor, which includes water, nicotine, and maybe a few additives for flavor and smell. Instead of exhaling second-hand smoke, only the water vapors are produced.

Regular cigarettes include hundreds of compounds from the tobacco leaves and other additives, not to mention the paper, in the smoke inhaled and exhaled as second-hand smoke. Many of these substances, like tar, are what cause illness and death in smokers. Nicotine is the addictive substance, but everything else is what causes cancer and other health problems. E-cigarettes remove those harmful substances from the equation.

E-Cigarettes for Smoking Cessation

Nicotine is a highly addictive drug, which means that quitting smoking is demanding, and for some smokers, never possible. Some experts, and the creators of e-cigarettes, believe that by offering nicotine without the harmful additives of tobacco, smokers can slowly wean themselves from nicotine in a safer manner. Recent research has proven that smokers using e-cigarettes to quit are as successful as those using nicotine patches. The e-cigarettes also had one advantage over patches according to the study: among those participants who did not quit successfully, fewer of those who used the e-cigarettes went back to tobacco cigarettes.

The Controversial Aspects of E-Cigarettes

There are some controversies surrounding e-cigarettes and calls for the FDA to regulate them as strictly as tobacco cigarettes. One important consideration is the marketing of e-cigarettes to kids. Attorneys general from nearly every state have pressed the FDA to tightly regulate e-cigarettes because of how they appeal to young people. While states have prohibited the sale of them to minors, there is no federal law restricting e-cigarettes by age. They come in flavors like bubble gum and cotton candy, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that the number of pre-teens and teens using e-cigarettes has doubled in the last two years.

Although they are much safer than tobacco cigarettes, e-cigarettes are still the delivery device for a highly addictive drug. Many people see them as a possible gateway drug for more harmful substances. There is no evidence that using these devices leads to further drug use, but it is a valid concern. E-cigarettes have already been used by creative adults and teens as a way to use marijuana. Vials of THC (the psychoactive compound in marijuana) in solution can be used in cigarettes to get a secretive high. The vapors do not emit the characteristic pot smell.
A final concern about e-cigarettes is the content of the vials sold by e-cigarette companies. Some worry that if the FDA does not regulate the devices, users may not know what chemicals are in their vaporizers, or how much nicotine they are getting in each hit.

FDA Regulation

Initially, the idea of e-cigarettes seems like a good one: clean, smoke-free delivery of nicotine, and a new way to help people kick the habit. Because of the controversies, however, many people and organizations are pushing the FDA to regulate the devices as tightly as tobacco cigarettes. Some are questioning the motivations of the FDA when the agency claims that patches and other pharmaceutical medications are better than e-cigarettes for cessation. Many are wondering if it is the pharmaceutical companies influencing the FDA’s stance on e-cigarettes. Only the FDA can say, and as the agency makes its decision about regulating e-cigarettes, we will eventually see what the future holds for vaporous highs.

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