Costing over $96 billion per year in health care expenses and taking over 1,200 lives daily, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Recently, this issue has given rise to electronic cigarettes, battery-powered devices that turn nicotine into vapor instead of the dangerous smoke associated with traditional cigarettes.
The new devices provide the smoker with the look and feel of smoking at a fraction of the cost, and in theory, a fraction of the health risks. With this new phenomenon taking hold, researchers are attempting to find out whether or not e-cigarettes are harmful to or helpful for smokers.
A large study in England recently found that smokers trying to quit were more likely to succeed with the use of electronic cigarettes over nicotine patches or gum. Researchers interviewed nearly 6,000 smokers who tried to quit without health professional counseling. About 20 percent of those who claimed to be using e-cigarettes had stopped smoking at the time of the survey, compared to the one-tenth of the subjects using patches and gum.
“This will not settle the e-cigarette issue by any means,” said Thomas J. Glynn of the American Cancer Society, “but it is further evidence that, in a real-world context, e-cigarettes can be a useful, although not revolutionary, tool in helping some smokers to stop.”
About 42 million Americans smoke, and nearly 500,000 people die every year from smoking-related diseases, making it one of the United States’ leading causes of preventable death. And while vaping is widely believed to be safer than inhaling tobacco smoke, it’s “not safer than just breathing clean air,” as noted by Dr. Richard Hurt, former director of the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Center.
The Food and Drug Administration has begun a broad study, but results will not be out for a couple years. However, a clinical trial in New Zealand found that people given e-cigarettes had a slightly better quit rate than those with patches. Many of the long term benefits are unknown and are still being researched, but many health experts believe that the toxins in the vapor are lower than in cigarette smoke.
The use of e-cigarettes has risen rapidly across the United States and Europe. The debate as to whether they are beneficial or harmful is fierce, with some claiming that the device could have unintended effects such as luring children to start smoking, while others claim that it is the best hope for smokers to switch to a safer alternative, according to the New York Times.
However, just because e-cigarettes have not been proven to be as harmful as the conventional cigarettes does not mean they come without risks. Due to lack of regulation in the e-cig industry, there is no guarantee that these products are safe or effective, according to News Press.
Critics of e-cigarettes argue that the sweet flavors and media advertisement entice young users into trying e-cigs, which raises concerns that vaping may lead kids to try other tobacco products. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), e-cigarette experimentation and recent use doubled among middle and high school students between 2011 and 2012.
Additionally, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that e-cigarettes can reduce the likelihood that people will quit smoking, in contrast to advertising claims that it will help people kick the habit. Although the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes are largely unknown, they do emit harmful substances into the air and can be a source of indoor pollution, according to NPR.
Since e-cigarettes are not FDA-approved as an aid for quitting smoking, and are actually on the brink of being labeled to warrant regulation like cigarettes, they are not covered as a free preventive benefit under the law.
Because of both conflicting evidence and the lack of extensive research, there is no general consensus on the effectiveness of electronic cigarettes. However, more and more scientific research is being released as e-cigarette use becomes more popular.