In the past year or so, e-cigarettes have spread like wild fire, appearing everywhere: On subways, at concerts, in bars and even in high schools. But as more and more individuals are making the switch to “vaping,” it has ignited some contentious debate: How safe are these devices, really? And are e-cigarettes enticing teens and young adults to use traditional tobacco cigarettes?
Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, are battery-operated inhalers that deliver a small dose of nicotine without the noxious cigarette smoke toxins. Sleek, slim, futuristic devices that are manufactured to resemble cigarettes, e-cigarettes mimic the sensation of smoking and are often used as smoking cessation aids.
When it comes to the relative benefits and risks associated with e-cigarettes, the evidence is hazy. Because they contain trace amounts of nicotine, e-cigarettes are touted as safer way to light up. But more recently, the devices have come under fire from doctors, researchers and organizations such as the FDA, who warn about the potential for adverse health effects.
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Dr. Alexander Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D.—Director of the Tobacco Outreach Education Program (TOEP), Co-director of the eHealth Technology program in the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment, and Professor in the Department of Behavioral Science—says that it’s difficult to make a conclusive judgment call regarding the relative safety of e-cigarettes until more scientific research has been done.
“In general, I would say that e-cigarettes are safer than conventional cigarettes because they lack the tobacco, irritants, carcinogens, and the thousands and thousands of harmful compounds,” Dr. Prokhorov says. “But I can’t confidently say that the product is safe until we’ve had enough research and thorough toxicology research to back it up.”
E-cigarettes are not currently regulated by the FDA, Dr. Prokhorov adds. This means that there’s no supervision of the amounts and types of components and potentially harmful constituents used in these devices.
But one of Dr. Prokhorov’s biggest concerns about e-cigarettes? The possibility for these devices to serve as a “gateway” to conventional tobacco products. “Kids are very excited about technology,” says Dr. Prokhorov, who spearheads a youth-oriented smoking cessation campaign called ASPIRE. “Many of these electronic cigarettes are designed to look like traditional cigarettes. They’re very enticing, and I can see how young people would be intrigued by them.”
According to a recent CDC report, the number of high school students who tried e-cigarettes rose from 4.7% in 2011 to 10% in 2012.
In the report, CDC officials expressed concern about the potential for abuse and addiction inherent in e-cigarettes. “The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes.”
Dr. Prokhorov agrees, adding that the CDC study indicates that smoking—which was starting to become passé—is once again trendy. “The study is pretty telling that the tobacco industry is starting to recruit new users of their products.”
He also warns that e-cigarettes may promote nicotine dependence in non-smokers. “Since the e-cigarettes contain nicotine, that means that whoever is using them becomes a nicotine dependent person,” Prokhorov says. “It becomes easier for them to switch to conventional cigarettes, since they’re already introduced to the effects of nicotine.”
Until more research has been conducted on e-cigarettes, your best bet is to abstain from this growing trend entirely. After all, aside from possibly helping people to quit smoking, there aren’t any proven benefits to e-cigarettes. Bottom line? This is one habit that should be kicked to the curb before you even pick it up.