E-Cigarettes: Safe Enough to Help You Quit?

FRIDAY, Feb. 26, 2010 (Health.com) — Nikhil Rao, 23, a student at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, took his first drag of a cigarette at age 18, while hanging out in a bar with buddies. Soon he was smoking half a pack a day. Then, like many smokers, he tried to kick the habit and—surprise!—found he couldnt do it.

But that was then. Now he goes by the screen name of PureVapor and extols the virtues of electronic cigarettes, also known as personal vaporizers. He saw an Internet ad for these battery-operated, smokeless cigarettes, and decided to see if they could help him quit.

So far so good, he says. “I have smoked four cigarettes in the last month, and only when I forgot to charge my batteries. Cigarettes now taste pretty disgusting, and I hate the thought of having to smoke one,” he says.

“My favorite thing about [electronic cigarettes] is that they're healthier and don't harm the people around me with secondhand smoke,” he says. “My mom says I don't emanate the stench of burnt tobacco, and I already feel less out of breath when doing heavy exercise.”

Healthier than cigarettes? Maybe, but some experts arent convinced theyre a safe or effective way to quit smoking. They say e-cigarette nicotine levels can range from nonexistent to toxic, and that some may contain dangerous additives. Others fear they are the 21st-century equivalent of candy cigarettes—attractive to children and teens as a sort of gateway drug for real cigarettes.

“These are not cigarettes,” says Nathan Cobb, MD, a research investigator at the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the American Legacy Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based public health foundation dedicated to stamping out smoking. “They are something completely different with a whole new set of risks that we dont understand.”

What is an e-cigarette?
They go by many names—electronic cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vapors, personal vaporizers, and nicotine vaporizers—and there are hundreds of brands available over the Internet and at stores. These devices are about the same size and shape as a regular cigarette. There is a cartridge with a mouthpiece, a vaporizer, and a battery topped with an indicator light.

When you take a drag, the vaporizer turns on and converts a nicotine-containing solution into a mist. The smoker then inhales this vapor. There are as many nicotine strengths and flavors, including chocolate, as there are brands. Once the vaporizer runs out, you purchase refill cartridges. The e-cigarette costs anywhere from $60 to $120, and the refill cartridges are about $10 a pack.

Unlike conventional cigarettes, e-cigarettes only contain nicotine, as opposed to the hundreds of other harmful chemicals found in tobacco. They sound great, because unlike other nicotine replacement products (patches, gum, lozenges, and inhalers), they come the closest to mimicking the feel of smoking.

Reasons to quit smoking
“The other products are only replacing nicotine; this product is also dealing with the behavioral aspect of smoking,” says Michael Siegel, MD, the associate chairman of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Theres only one catch: E-cigarettes, unlike smoking cessation products, are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Thats because they are marketed as an alternative to cigarettes, not as way to quit—even though many people use them to try to cut down. E-cigarettes havent been studied to see if they can actually help you quit.

“There hasnt been enough research to show how effective these are as quitting tools, but there is lots of anecdotal evidence that many smokers are finding them helpful,” says Dr. Siegel. They have potential as a quitting method, he says.

“Holding and puffing are all part of addiction,” he explains. “The beauty of e-cigs is that they replace most of the behavioral stimuli that are associated with the smoking process.”

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Lead writer: Denise Mann
Last Updated: February 26, 2010

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