They are advertised as the healthy alternative to tobacco and a great way to help smokers kick their habit. But are electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, as benign as they claim?
Judging from the growing number of brands on the market that sell e-cigarettes, it’s safe to say this trend is gaining steam. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about 21 percent of adults who smoke traditional cigarettes had used e-cigarettes, up from about 10 percent in 2010. Overall, about six percent of all adults have tried e-cigarettes, with estimates nearly doubling from 2010.
So what exactly are e-cigarettes? They are battery powered devices that provide inhaled doses of nicotine, humectants to produce the vapor and flavorings to the user. While they don’t contain tobacco, they do contain nicotine and other chemicals, and we know little about their safety.
What concerns me is that despite the lack of scientific evidence, e-cigarettes are also being marketed as smoking cessation aids. A study recently reported by the CDC Office on Smoking and Health in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, concludes that awareness and use of e-cigarettes have increased among U.S. adults between 2010 and 2011 and research shows many smokers are making the switch to their electronic counterparts – roughly one in five smokers have tried e-cigarettes.
Many tobacco prevention advocates fear, with good reason, that this increase will continue as companies continue to market these products as benign alternatives to traditional cigarettes.
So, why should you be concerned about this trend? Well, these attractive little devices perpetuate the use of nicotine and tobacco products among smokers who may otherwise quit, and counter the effectiveness of smoke-free and tobacco-free policies. In addition, we have yet to determine whether e-cigarettes increase or decrease the use of traditional cigarettes or whether the marketing of these products could impact initiation and use of traditional cigarettes, particularly among young people.
And let’s not forget that e-cigarettes are exempt from most local and state smoke-free policies that many coalitions worked hard to implement in their cities and states.
A few years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to parents and consumers, noting that e-cigarettes are sold without any legal age restrictions and are available in different flavors (such as chocolate, strawberry and mint) which may appeal to young people. In addition, the FDA said, the devices do not contain any health warnings comparable to FDA-approved nicotine replacement products or conventional cigarettes.
The first E-cigarettes crept into our markets as early as 2005 after its first introduction in May 2004 in the Chinese domestic market as an aid for smoking cessation and replacement. Interesting considering the FDA tested 19 varieties of e-cigarettes in May 2009 and found diethylene glycol, a poisonous and hygroscopic liquid, in one of the cartridges manufactured by Smoking Everywhere, an e-cigarette vendor. Tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs), known cancer-causing agents, were also detected in all of the cartridges from one brand and two of the cartridges from another brand. Not only were there further concerns raised during the tests over inconsistent amounts of nicotine delivered when drawing on the device, but nicotine could also be traced in some claimed “nicotine-free” cartridges.
Reading this post may be leading you as the community coalition member to wonder what it is that you can actually do to educate the community about e-cigarettes when such claims are so unclear. Well, my suggestion would be to underscore how little we know about the safety of e-cigarettes and the fact that e-cigarettes are not regulated or approved by the FDA.
E-cigarettes were never introduced by scientific acclaimed standards as a cessation product in the first place– telling the truth just about that alone can raise some eyebrows among early adopters. The key here can simply be to report on what we know, albeit little, rather than calling our public health claims into question by promoting all the many things we don’t know.
So what do we know for certain? We know e-cigarettes are used to deliver nicotine into the bloodstream and we all know nicotine is the addictive agent that takes thousands of lives each year. We know that nicotine is more addictive than crack cocaine and heroin. So, here you have a new kid on the block coming along to deliver that same addictive substance in a new, more attractive shell. Drawing those associations may, at the least, force consumers to question the validity of e-cigarette vendors’ claims.