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Electronic Cigarettes May Help Smokers Quit, But Are They Safe?

Kicking the cigarette habit is one of the best things that smokers can do for themselves. Nicotine replacement products, prescription medications, and counseling can all help. What about the newest tobacco substitute, the electronic cigarette? Despite the appeal of so-called e-cigarettes, we don’t know enough about their safety or effectiveness to give them the green light.

Electronic cigarettes come in a variety of shapes. Some look like cigarettes, pipes, or cigars, while others are disguised as pens or other more socially acceptable items. Whatever their shape, they all are built around a battery-operated heating element, a replaceable cartridge that contains nicotine and other chemicals, and an atomizer that converts the chemicals into an inhalable vapor.

A study published this spring in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that electronic cigarettes may help smokers quit. Whether they are a safe way to quit is another question—preliminary studies from the FDA, New Zealand, and Greece raise some concerns.

There are three reasons to worry about electronic cigarettes. First, the dose of nicotine delivered with each puff may vary substantially. An FDA analysis recorded nicotine doses between 26.8 and 43.2 micrograms per puff. It also detected nicotine in products labeled as nicotine free.

Second, electronic cigarettes deliver an array of other chemicals, including diethylene glycol (a highly toxic substance), various nitrosamines (powerful carcinogens found in tobacco), and at least four other chemicals suspected of being harmful to humans. To be sure, the dose of these compounds is generally smaller than found in “real” cigarette smoke. But it isn’t zero.

Third, by simulating the cigarette experience, electronic cigarettes might reactivate the habit in ex-smokers. They could also be a gateway into tobacco abuse for young people who are not yet hooked.

We need scientific studies of e-cigarettes. Until then, it’s caveat emptor, buyer beware. And be aware that there are better and safer ways to quit. The most effective strategy involves using nicotine replacement or a medication along with some sort of counseling or support, either in person, by telephone, or even by text message.

If you want to quit, solid information and advice are available at www.smokefree.gov, a Web site developed by the National Cancer Institute. Any of the approved methods are vastly preferable to smoking—and to electronic cigarettes.

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You can read Dr. Harvey Simon’s bio here.

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*


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2 Responses to “Electronic Cigarettes May Help Smokers Quit, But Are They Safe?”

  1. Molesworth says:

    Diethylene Glycol was only ever found in one capsule, and in very small amounts. It’s not been found in any others. Usually they contain Propylene Glycol which is safe enough to be used in asthma inhalers. As for reactivating the habit in ex smokers, so might cigarettes. It’s better to have a safer alternative and electronic cigarettes are undoubtedly safer – rather than having 5000 chemicals, they maybe have a dozen in them. That must be safer.

  2. Bernie says:

    There is a new product on the market, it looks like a cigarette and charges by plugging into a USB computer plug.
    The Excel cigarette claims to have NO Cancerous substances, No horrible smells, No burning, No tobacco, No nicotine,No tar, No Co2 . It emits a vapour with a light at the end when drawn on and the smoker exhales what appears to be smoke . what is the chemical that produces the vapour

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