Where There’s Smoke: Clearing the Air About e-Cigs and Quitting

Jan. 2, 2018

So you’ve decided to kick that smoking habit. As you plot your strategy for success, should you consider swapping tobacco for e-cigarettes? Are the trendy electronic devices a safe alternative? Can they actually help you stop smoking?hands holding cigarette and e-cigarette

Arecent report from the U.S. Surgeon Generalraises questions about their safety, and more studies are under way about this relatively new way of delivering nicotine. Avi Dressler, tobacco dependence counselor with theCenter for Community Health Preventionat URMC, fills us in on some facts about e-cigs.

What are e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes come in many shapes and sizes. Some look like long cigarettes; others look like cigars or pipes. To use one, you inhale through a mouthpiece, triggering a sensor that switches on a battery-powered heater and, on many brands, a light at the “lit” end of the e-cigarette.

Inhaling gives you a puff of hot gas that attempts to mimic the sensation of inhaling tobacco smoke. When you exhale, there's a cloud of vapor that looks a lot like smoke.

Using e-cigarettes is often referred to as “vaping.” The heater vaporizes a liquid solution in a cartridge that is then inhaled by the user. The solution may contain nicotine and other chemicals, and most commonly includes propylene glycol, the stuff of which theatrical smoke is made. It also is an ingredient in antifreeze. Some studies have shown that cartridges may contain carcinogens, chemicals known to cause cancer.

Are e-cigs safe?

Despite e-cig manufacturers touting benefits and claiming they are a safe alternative to tobacco products, evidence from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicates otherwise. They analyzed samples of two popular brands and found varying amounts of nicotine and traces of toxic chemicals, including carcinogens. This prompted an FDA warning about potential health risks associated with electronic cigarettes and set in motion legislation to regulate the products.

So let’s compare:

  • Cigarettes
    • Harm nearly every organ of your body and causeheart disease, cancer, and many other illnesses.
    • Contain in excess of 4,000 chemicals, more than 70 of which are known to cause cancer.
  • E-cigarettes
    • Use cartridges that contain propylene glycol, a common food preservative also found in antifreeze. The health effects of inhaling propylene glycol in e-cigarettes are not yet well understood.
    • Contain a variety of other chemicals, including some with carcinogens, although fewer and at lower concentrations than found in tobacco cigarettes.

What’s the bottom line on e-cigarettes?

Because they are fairly new and there is so little research on them, there is no perfect answer about their safety or effectiveness as a quitting aid. Without knowing the potential health effects, we can’t yet recommend using e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking.

Use of any product containing nicotine, whether an e-cigarette or cigarette, poses dangers to youth, pregnant women and fetuses.

Nicotine exposure during periods of brain development (into mid-20s) can disrupt the growth of brain circuits that control attention, learning, and susceptibility to addiction. Since 2014, e-cigarettes have become the most commonly used tobacco product among youth. This is especially concerning as e-cigarette use is strongly associated with use of other tobacco products among youth and young adults. Long-term effects of nicotine exposure during youth can include lower impulse control and mood disorders.

What weknow:There are well-researched and safe ways to kick the smoking habit.

There are five safe, effective nicotine replacements to help smokers stop: patches, gum, lozenges, inhalers, and nasal sprays. Each of these is proven to increase your odds of quitting for life.

Two safe and effective medications are also available to help: bupropion and varenicline.Your doctor can help you decide what is best for you.

Stopping smoking is the best thing you can do for your health. You can greatly increase your chance of stopping by combining a nicotine replacement or medication with counseling from a health care provider.

Avi Dressler

Avi Dressler is a clinical research coordinator and tobacco dependence counselor at theCenter for Community Health Preventionat URMC. The center offers programs to help individuals lose weight, manage blood pressure or cholesterol, stop smoking, and reduce stress.