Electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes are designed to look like cigarettes, right down to the glowing tip. When the smoker puffs on it, the system delivers a mist of liquid, flavorings and nicotine that looks something like smoke. The smoker inhales it like cigarette smoke, and the nicotine is absorbed into the lungs. The e-cigarette has been promoted as a way for a smoker to get nicotine in places where smoking is not allowed. Some people think they can be used to help people give up tobacco.
The makers of e-cigarettes say that the ingredients are “safe,” but this only means the ingredients have been found to be safe to eat. Inhaling a substance is not the same as swallowing it. There are questions about how safe it is to inhale some substances in the e-cigarette vapor into the lungs. And e-cigarettes are not labeled with their ingredients, so the user doesn’t know what’s in them. The amounts of nicotine and other substances a person gets from each cartridge are also unclear.
A study done by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found cancer-causing substances in half the e-cigarette samples tested. Other impurities were also found, including one sample with diethylene glycol, a toxic ingredient found in antifreeze.
Studies have shown that e-cigarettes can cause short-term lung changes that are much like those caused by regular cigarettes. But long-term health effects are still unclear. This is an active area of research, but the safety of these products is currently unknown.
Electronic cigarettes are designed to deliver nicotine, and nicotine is addictive. This strongly suggests that e-cigarette use will lead to dependence, unless the user weans him or herself from them. A 2013 survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that e-cigarette use in middle school and high school students doubled between 2011 and 2012, with 10% of high school students and 3% of middle school kids using them and risking addiction to nicotine. Among high school students, 80% smoked regular cigarettes and used e-cigarettes at the same time.
Because the American Cancer Society (ACS) doesn’t yet know whether e-cigarettes are safe and effective, they are not recommended by the FDA to help people quit smoking. There are proven methods available to help people quit, including pure forms of inhalable nicotine as well as nasal sprays, gums and patches.
Until electronic cigarettes are scientifically proven to be safe and effective, the ACS supports the regulation of e-cigarettes and laws that treat them like all other tobacco products.