Despite the ever-shrinking number of smokers, cigarette use is still a top public health priority. And despite the incredible gains that have been made, the carnage caused by smoking still takes an enormous physical and financial toll.
Into this debate comes a product that advertises itself as a way for smokers to reduce the harm caused by cigarette use and a way for smokers to comply with smoking bans in work and public places.
That product is the “electronic cigarette” or e-cigarette.
E-cigarette companies promote them as healthier, convenient, and more socially acceptable alternatives to traditional cigarettes.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) describes e-cigarettes as drug-delivery devices designed to provide nicotine or other substances to a user in the form of a vapor.
E-cigarettes are not traditional cigarettes. They are typically composed of a rechargeable, battery-operated heating element, a replaceable cartridge that may contain nicotine or other chemicals, and an atomizer that uses heat to convert the contents of the cartridge into a vapor, which is then inhaled by the user. Most of the harmful constituents found in the smoke from a traditional cigarette are the byproducts of the incomplete combustion of organic matter – namely, tobacco leaves. Because there is no combustion with an e-cigarette, these chemicals are not present in the vapor.
But this does not make them safe. In initial lab tests, the FDA found detectable levels of carcinogens and toxic chemicals, including an ingredient used in anti-freeze, in two brands of e-cigarettes and numerous cartridges purchased on the open market.
FDA determined that users could potentially be exposed to these chemicals. This contradicts manufacturers’ claims that their products are safe alternatives to tobacco. Moreover, e-cigarettes have not been approved by the FDA for use in smoking cessation.
More research on e-cigarettes is needed to determine what ingredients they contain, how they are being used, and what effect they have on users. It is important for consumers to know that most e-cigarettes on the market are manufactured outside the United States, often in countries with poor consumer product safety records. No authority in this country regulates e-cigarettes or certifies their safety.
In addition to the lack of evidence their safety, the availability of e-cigarettes has raised concerns from children’s advocates. Government agencies and medical organizations, such as the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have expressed concern that e-cigarettes could increase nicotine addiction and tobacco use in young people. E-cigarettes are often made to resemble traditional cigarettes and are available in flavors appealing to minors. E-cigarettes may also lead young people to try traditional cigarettes or other tobacco products, which are known to cause disease and premature death. Many nicotine refill cartridges are not adequately packaged to prevent children’s access or accidental ingestion of toxic amounts of nicotine. So what should be done? Potential e-cigarette smokers should check into the facts about these products – to at least be aware of the safety doubts. Policymakers in New York can go one step further; they can prohibit the sale of these devices to minors. Legislation has been introduced in New York to do just that. Lawmakers should support this proposal in order to ensure that the state’s children are not participants in the e-cigarette “experiment.” Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division. His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.
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