Since electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) hit the market in 2007, sales have skyrocketed. They’re popular partly because people believe they are safer than cigarettes. But is that really true?
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Although there’s not enough data to fully answer that question yet, some doctors say they likely are safer. They caution, however, that e-cigarettes come with their own health risks. And they aren’t vetted for long-term use.
How do they compare?
E-cigarettes use heat from a battery to produce a vapor from a flavored liquid that contains nicotine. Users simulate the effect of smoking by inhaling the vapor, a practice known as “vaping.” Long-term health effects are unknown.
Cigarettes, on the other hand, are currently the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the United States.
“Traditional cigarettes are made of tobacco, which, when combusted, will produce more than 6,000 chemicals, many of which are known to cause cancer,” says pulmonologist Umur Hatipoglu, MD. Traditional cigarettes contain substances such as formaldehyde, arsenic, tar and ammonia, which are established hazards to lung health.
There are fewer chemicals in e-cigarettes (though still as many as 250 or more). They’re not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though, so you have no way of knowing what, exactly, is in them.
Don’t discount nicotine
Both e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes contain nicotine. But e-cigarettes contain less — between one-third to one-half as much.
Nicotine is linked to multiple health problems, including increased heart rate, constriction of the blood vessels (which could lead to heart disease), peptic ulcers, erectile dysfunction, premature birth and sudden infant death syndrome. Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical.
Can vaping help you quit smoking?
Dr. Hatipoglu doesn’t discourage his patients from using e-cigarettes to quit smoking, if all else has failed. But he likes other methods of nicotine replacement better. For one thing, the FDA does not list e-cigarettes as an approved method of smoking cessation.
The FDA approves using certain prescription medications, as well as over-the-counter products such as skin patches, lozenges and gum.
If you do decide to use e-cigarettes to help you quit smoking, Dr. Hatipoglu recommends that you stop using them as soon as you feel confident you have kicked the habit.
FDA proposes e-cigarette regulation
To address the ongoing public health problems from tobacco use, the FDA is working to expand the list of products it regulates.
The new rule under review would allow the FDA to regulate electronic cigarettes and other products, including certain dissolvables, nicotine gels and water pipe tobacco. The agency already regulates cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco.
Under the new rule, the FDA could impose age restrictions, investigate new tobacco products and claims, and issue health warnings on several new categories of products.