These smoke-free alternatives to traditional cigarettes allow users to inhale an aerosol, or vapor, containing nicotine or other substances (also known as vaping). But are e-cigarettes a safe, viable alternative to traditional tobacco or just another addiction waiting to happen? “For those with serious addictions, e-cigarettes offer a non-combustible way to introduce nicotine,” notes Tim Ellender, M.D., a doctor of emergency medicine at Indiana University Health.
That said, there’s a lot that’s still unknown about the effects of e-cigarettes on the body. “We still don’t know how vaporized nicotine solution reacts or whether it can potentially injure lung tissue,” says Dr. Ellender. Here’s what else you should know about e-cigarettes.
• You’re still relying on nicotine for a buzz. To use an e-cigarette, a person inserts a cartridge or fills the device’s tank with a liquid solution. This liquid contains nicotine, as well as other chemicals and flavorings. When the e-cigarette is puffed, the vaporizer heats up, turning the nicotine-containing liquid in the tank or cartridge into an aerosol. Users then breathe in this vapor. “Nicotine by itself is not only incredibly addicting, but also causes blood vessel construction that can advance other disease states and affect wound healing, bone growth, and fetal development,” says Dr. Ellender. At high doses, nicotine can cause dizziness and vomiting. Users who refill their own cartridges are especially at risk for unsafe levels of the drug.
• There’s not much oversight. Unlike tobacco, which is highly regulated, right now the FDA does not regulate e-cigarettes, which means manufacturers don’t have to follow any specific rules on safety or advertising (although some states have passed laws against the use and sale of e-cigarettes). That means there’s no information about what chemicals are in the e-liquids or how they might affect your health. The inhaled vapor may contain chemicals like formaldehyde, and flavorings may hide possible toxins. It’s also unclear if the vapor puffed into the air puts nonsmokers at risk for health problems.
• They are attracting younger users. Flavorings such as bubble gum, mint and fruit are tempting high school and even middle school students to try vaping, which can introduce them to a dangerous nicotine habit. According to the CDC, e-cigarette use among both high school and middle school students tripled in one year, increasing from 4.5 percent in 2013 to 13.4 percent in 2014 among high school students, and from 1.1 percent in 2013 to 3.9 percent in 2014 among middle school students.
• They’re not necessarily the best tool to help you quit smoking. Their design and mode of nicotine delivery may make quitting easier. But ongoing research is mixed on how well they work as a smoking cessation aid. Some studies suggest they may help, but others show that smokers may be using both regular and e-cigarettes. In 2013, 76.8 percent of the people who recently used e-cigarettes also currently smoked conventional cigarettes, according to the American Lung Association. Best advice: Talk to your doctor about safer alternatives to quitting smoking so you can beat the nicotine habit for good.