Claudia Blackburn: Risks of e-cigarettes not fully known

03/01/2014 10:36 AM

03/02/2014 8:01 AM

These days, it’s not uncommon to see people sucking on small devices, blowing out vapors as they go about their daily business. These nicotine-dispensing electronic cigarettes may look like a traditional cigarette or a pipe – or even a USB memory stick or an ink pen. They are becoming increasingly popular, with users touting the devices as a healthier alternative to cigarettes.

According to the American Legacy Foundation, the use of e-cigarettes in the United States is on the rise. More than 20 percent of adult smokers have tried these products, and from 2011 to 2012, the percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who have tried them more than doubled.

How do they work?

E-cigarettes deliver nicotine or other substances to the user through an inhaled vapor. The design varies by manufacturer, but they generally consist of a battery-powered heating element, replaceable cartridges containing nicotine or other chemicals and an atomizer that converts the chemicals into a vapor to be inhaled.

So are e-cigarettes safe?

The truth is, we don’t know. The effects of e-cigarettes have not been fully studied. This means consumers and the Food and Drug Administration currently do not know the risks of using e-cigarettes.

It is not known how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are inhaled by users, nor is it known whether e-cigarette use may lead to use of other tobacco products.

Neither are the benefits of using e-cigarettes over traditional products known. According to the World Health Organization, the efficacy of e-cigarettes for helping people to quit smoking has not been scientifically demonstrated.

Additionally, only those products marketed for therapeutic purposes are currently regulated by the FDA. The World Health Organization suspects the delivered dose of nicotine depends on the product, with different devices containing various quantities and concentrations of nicotine – variations which may affect the risk of addiction.

A 2014 Surgeon General’s report, “The Health Consequences of Smoking – 50 Years of Progress,” states that addiction depends on the nicotine dose and the way it is delivered, and the potential for addiction increases with delivery rate, the rate of absorption and the concentration of nicotine.

The bottom line is this: E-cigarettes dispense nicotine, the major chemical component responsible for addiction. According to the surgeon general’s report, there has been enough evidence to caution pregnant women, women of reproductive age and adolescents about the use of nicotine-containing smoking alternatives such as e-cigarettes.

What are my options?

The World Health Organization strongly encourages consumers not to use e-cigarettes until a regulatory body deems them safe and effective. In the meantime, if you are trying to quit smoking, the FDA has approved a number of smoking-cessation aids. These include nicotine gum, nicotine skin patches, nicotine lozenges, nicotine oral inhaled products and nicotine nasal spray.

For more information on tobacco cessation, visit

Contributing: Tara Nolan, a public health educator, and Brittany Clampitt with Sedgwick County Communications

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