Take Two #122 E-Cigarettes: Cessation Tool or Gateway Drug

By Kyra-lin Hom

E-Cigarettes are heralded as the new 'safer' way to smoke – oh, excuse me. The word is 'vape.' Despite the catchy product name, those in the industry are very careful to make this distinction. E-cigarettes rely on an internal heat source to vaporize a nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerol and flavor liquid mixture casually called 'e-juice.' You inhale, the heating device activates, the vaporized chemicals get sucked into your lungs, and you breathe out water vapor – no smoke involved.

The popularity of this product has skyrocketed since its introduction to the US from China in 2007. Many traditional smokers have made the switch, claiming this 'healthier' alternative helped or is helping them kick the habit for good. There is none of the tar, ammonia, arsenic or carbon dioxide (shall I go on?) that have made traditional cigarettes the infamous poison sticks that they are.

So why is everyone suddenly freaking out? Chicago, for example, just banned their use indoors. Los Angeles has banned their use in all public spaces, both indoor and outdoor. What's all the panic about?

For one, e-cigarettes were not FDA regulated. It took the FDA until this April (seven years!) to even limply regulate the sale and manufacturing of this product. That's on the FDA. Prior to this move, there had been no federal age restrictions and no requirement that the different e-juice formulas be disclosed to consumers. Anyone surprised that this paired with increased national sales resulted in popularity with teens and an increase in calls to poison control really needs to spend more time with people – or a statistics textbook. Let's see, allow teens legal access to one of society's big bads and then let anyone tack the words 'healthier' and 'safer' onto the issue... What did they think was going to happen?

A recent NPR article quoted a 16 year-old saying she thought e-cigarettes were good because e-cigarettes are “like flavored nicotine and...I think that nicotine is supposed to help you stop smoking.” Well, she kind of got the message... No wonder some cities took action.

Second, e-cigarettes are not harmless. They do contain concentrated nicotine, and nicotine is an addictive pesticide. Then again, the e-cigarette companies never actually claimed their products were harmless. The catchphrase has been 'safer alternative' – another clear distinction the e-cigarette industry has been very careful to maintain. That we as a society don't seem to realize direct skin, eye or mouth exposure to a concentrated nicotine liquid is dangerous is an education and critical thinking skills failure.

But regardless of our intellectual shortcomings, should warning labels be in huge bold letters all over e-cigarettes? Yes, absolutely. Think of it like bleach, and for the love of all that is good keep it away from children! Last February, over half of the e-cigarette-related calls to poison control were for children five and under. What were their parents doing?

Third, there is very little hard data to back up the claims being made by either side. Is second hand e-cigarette vapor harmful? Maybe. There are small particles of nicotine (etc.) in the vapor that in high concentrations can be harmful – hence the blanket indoor bans. Does using e-cigarettes help people quit smoking?Anecdotal evidence would say so, but no official study can back that up. Does offering e-cigarettes in flavors like chocolate and vanilla (and who says only children like chocolate?) encourage people away from the foul taste of cigarettes or act as a gateway drug for people who would otherwise not touch anything cigarette related? Probably both. We don't know.

Bottom line, there isn't enough evidence for us to automatically condemn or condone the e-cigarette. We should absolutely regulate it, but we should do so with a clear head.

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