Is it a Catch-22 or a smoke screen? Are e-cigarettes the most promising product to come along to help smokers quit their nicotine addiction, or are they a clever, new way to get non-smokers hooked? Or, are they both?
At this point, no one can say for sure, but there appears to be an informal and growing consensus that electronic cigarettes represent a real health benefit for longtime smokers. That's because e-cigs do not contain tobacco and the many harmful substances that are released and inhaled when cigarettes are smoked. At the same time, there is concern that too little is known about possible negative health effects on e-cig users and bystanders of chemicals that are released when their vapor is inhaled.
That is an important health issue, but the purpose of this column is to discuss addiction. In that regard, again because of the newness of the product, there is too little information to know if e-cigs, as widely touted, can actually help smokers break their nicotine addiction. Even more significantly, as the Food and Drug Administration says on its web site, "It is not known whether e-cigarettes may lead young people to try other tobacco products, including conventional cigarettes, which are known to cause disease and lead to premature death."
As public health campaigns against tobacco products have sharply reduced sales of tobacco products in the United States, e-cigarettes have quickly blossomed into a $2-plus billion industry that shows no signs of slowing down.
Cities and states have scrambled to pass laws regulating where e-cigs can be used. New York City bans using them wherever smoking is banned. (You must be 18 to buy them.) In an effort to provide uniformity to the law, the FDA is poised to extend some or all of its regulations for tobacco products to electronic cigarettes. That has a lot of smokers upset, saying the government shouldn't make it harder for people trying to quit smoking by vaping -- the term for using e-cigarettes.
E-cigs use a battery to heat and vaporize nicotine that is mixed with water, flavoring and a base (two types) to carry the mixture. Unlike traditional cigarettes, cigars and pipes, there is no combustion -- the source for the health problems. For e-cig users, it's more like inhaling fog, with a shot of nicotine (in varying doses), while enjoying the same hand-to-mouth, tactile experience of lighting up. Smoking without the smoke.
Again, that sounds like a sensible way to help longtime smokers avoid the serious health risks associated with using combustible cigarettes, while still getting their nicotine fix. It says nothing about that fix -- the addiction to nicotine. Some studies have raised concerns about the addictive power of the nicotine used in e-cigs, even at lower doses.