Questions remain about this popular product
Since smoking is so bad for the heart, some people had hoped that electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) might provide a heart-healthy alternative. These battery-operated, cigarette-shaped devices give off a vapor that contains nicotine. E-cigs entice smokers by providing the pleasure of inhaled nicotine without the health risks of tobacco smoke. While e-cigs may be less damaging to health than real cigarettes are, they still present risks.
Electronic cigarettes may cause less harm than inhaled tobacco smoke but they still pose risks.
The promise of low-risk smoking
As a nicotine delivery system to help smokers quit or at least cut their health risk by forgoing tobacco products, e-cigs seem to make sense and theoretically could be a good thing. One study, published in the journal Addiction, showed that potential quitters who used e-cigs had a 60% higher success rate than those who used other nicotine replacement products, such as patches and gum. Other research, however, has been equivocal about the benefit of e-cigs.
Dr. Vaughan Rees, interim director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control Research at the Harvard School of Public Health, questions their utility as a cessation aid. “E-cigarettes are not able to deliver enough nicotine to satisfy addicted smokers to make the devices a viable quitting option,” he says.
Another danger is that smokers will use e-cigs in addition to tobacco products and postpone their quitting efforts. Since the lifetime health risk from tobacco use is related to years of smoking, not just the number of cigarettes smoked, dual use is unlikely to benefit health. In addition, nicotine itself is hardly harmless. It raises blood pressure and makes the heart work harder, which can be dangerous for people with coronary artery disease. “Because smoking has become less convenient and less socially desirable, smoking rates have dropped. E-cigs may be undermining those gains,” cautions Dr. Rees.
Another alarming aspect: the e-cigarette industry markets heavily to young people by offering dozens of fruit and candy flavorings. “Kids who wouldn’t contemplate smoking conventional cigarettes may try e-cigs and then switch to combusted tobacco products,” says Dr. Rees. Since e-cigarettes are currently unregulated and unstandardized, dangerous contaminants—including toxic metals and other carcinogens—may be present in the fluid that delivers the nicotine.
In response to these concerns, the FDA announced in April its intent to regulate electronic cigarettes. The proposed regulations include a ban on sales to minors but no restrictions on flavored products or online sales. However, since these regulations may spark a court challenge from manufacturers, it may be years
before effective health and safety standards are in place.