Daily Dispatches
A man smokes an e-cigarette.
Associated Press/Photo by Ed Andrieski
A man smokes an e-cigarette.

Can technology make smoking safe?

Health

Electronic cigarettes have seen explosive growth among both adults and minors since they hit the market in 2006. Last year, 7 percent of students in grades 6 through 12 said they have tried one, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s almost 1.8 million students––up from just under 800,000, or 3 percent, in 2011.

Twenty states have laws banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, in part because they contain nicotine, the same highly addictive ingredient in regular cigarettes. But most doctors believe they are much safer than real cigarettes since nicotine isn’t the reason smoking causes cancer and lung disease: Tar and other chemicals in tobacco smoke are the real culprits.

An e-cigarette is a relatively simple device consisting of a small battery, which powers a heating element that vaporizes liquid to produce a smoke-like discharge. The liquid contains nicotine, either propylene glycol or vegetable glycerine, and added flavors. An LED simulates the glow at the end when a user puffs the device. Most come in the recognizable shape of a regular cigarette.

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Made in China, the cumbersome first models had rechargeable batteries and refillable liquid cartridges. Newer disposable models containing the nicotine equivalent of a pack or more of traditional cigarettes are now available at any convenience store.

Seeing the increased demand for the product, traditional American cigarette manufacturers have jumped on the trend and are producing and marketing their own versions.

For smokers looking to kick the habit, e-cigarettes could actually help. A new study out of New Zealand shows e-cigarettes are comparable to nicotine patches for smokers who want to quit. In response to the study, Peter Hajek, an anti-smoking expert at Queen Mary University in London called it “pioneering” and suggested e-cigarettes might be recommended to smokers who want to quit or cut down. “E-cigarettes may not be perfectly safe, but even if some currently unknown risk materializes, they are likely to be orders of magnitude safer than normal cigarettes,” he said.

But manufacturers have stopped short of FDA regulation by selling the devices as a nicotine delivery system rather than a smoking cessation product like nicotine patches, which work by replacing a smoker’s inhaled nicotine with skin absorption of a controlled nicotine dose for a limited time. E-cigarettes, however, deliver the nicotine straight to the lungs like a real cigarette, without limits in dosage.

Are e-cigarettes a new way to stop smoking or at least stop inhaling tobacco smoke, or an enticing new gateway to nicotine addiction for minors? This new evidence suggests both.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mark Russell
Mark Russell

Mark is a freelance writer and practicing physician living in Hot Springs, Arkansas with the love of his life who also happens to be his wife of 39 years. Follow Mark on Twitter @msrmd.

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