Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, seem to be everywhere nowadays – you see people “smoking” them on subway platforms and at restaurants, and they can even be purchased for around $20 at your local 7-Eleven. But with the ubiquitous presence of this new smoking cessation method comes several important questions: Are e-cigarettes effective? And more importantly, are they safe?
E-cigarettes are so new, as far as smoking cessation therapies are concerned, that there have been no definitive studies on their effectiveness, or safety. However, a 2011 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine http://download.journals.elsevierhealth.com/pdfs/journals/0749-3797/PIIS0749379710007920.pdf found that, in a small sample of users, over the course of 6 months e-cigarettes led to complete abstinence from smoking in 31% of those sampled. Loosely translated, this means that e-cigarettes are effective in quitting smoking about 1/3 of the time. Almost as important, if not more so, the study also showed that e-cigarettes reduced the number of regular cigarettes smoked in almost 70% of users.
The fact that e-cigarettes led to users cutting down on regular cigarettes is important because e-cigarettes deliver a lower dose of harmful nicotine than their tobacco-filled counterparts. E-cigarettes work by delivering an inhalable vapor (containing nicotine and some of the other chemicals in cigarettes) via a battery-operated device. So, users are inhaling a vapor rather than smoke, and the chemicals in the vapor are found in much lower quantities than in cigarette smoke. However, there are still chemicals involved, some of which (such as various nitrosamines and the highly toxic diethylene glycol) have been shown to be harmful to humans. An FDA analysis also revealed that the amount of chemicals varies from puff to puff, so there is no surefire way to determine exactly how much nicotine is being inhaled. This finding, as well as e-cigarettes’ chemical content and a few other factors, including the absence of definitive validating studies, has resulted in e-cigarettes NOT being approved by the FDA. Users can take this for what it’s worth, as many drugs and products approved by the FDA are eventually recalled, and there may be more evidence in the future to support and approve their use as a smoking cessation therapy. For now, the bottom line is that e-cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes, but other smoking cessation methods, such as nicotine gum or the patch, deliver fewer chemicals and are more effective in helping users quit. E-cigarettes may be a good gateway to other means of quitting smoking, but, until their safety and efficacy have been more thoroughly studied, they should probably not be used long-term.