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Can e-cigarettes help you stop smoking?

And one of the latest products on the market to make the claim it can help you stop smoking is electronic cigarettes.  See more drug pictures.
©iStockphoto.com/Anyka

Tobacco use is responsible for more than 5 million deaths per year worldwide [source: CDC]. But it's a preventable cause of death. So, it's not surprising that, when a new device that has the potential to help people quit smoking hits the market, many smokers are willing to give it a try. And one of the latest to make that claim is the electronic cigarette.

It was invented in China by a company called Ruyan in 2003 and first introduced to the U.S. market in 2007, and it's gaining both friends and foes across the world. But what's the deal? Can they really help you quit smoking? Proponents of e-cigarettes say yes and think they're better than smoking tobacco cigarettes -- both for their health and for their wallets. But the FDA and other health agencies aren't so sure. They want to know more about the side effects of the electronic cigarette, and some are calling for tight regulations. Currently e-cigs aren't subject to U.S. tobacco laws because they don't contain tobacco, which makes them hard to regulate -- and keep out of the hands of minors.

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So what's the bottom line for this new vaping craze? Well, that's where the anecdotal evidence from e-cigarette makers and users comes up against arguments from regulatory agencies and health experts. And both sides make some worthwhile points. Read on to find out what they have to say.

 

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Fans of electronic cigarettes say the devices can help people quit smoking and that e-cigs are healthier options than tobacco cigarettes, because they use vapor to deliver nicotine to the body instead of smoke. After all, it's the smoke from tobacco cigarettes that's been proven as one of the causes of cancer [source: American Cancer Society]. Electronic cigarettes, however, don't expose the consumer to the same toxic chemicals, because they don't use tobacco, or smoke, to deliver nicotine to the lungs. Instead, the device heats up a liquid-nicotine solution, which turns into a vapor that the user inhales.

Many people looking for a way to quit smoking are embracing the e-cigarette, reporting that the device has helped them quit or greatly cut down on tobacco-cigarette use [source: Kesmodel and Yadron]. Proponents of the e-cig say they experience less coughing and easier breathing with e-cigarettes compared to regular cigarettes, and they enjoy the absence of smoky odors and stained teeth. The e-cigarette, unlike nicotine replacement therapies such as the patch or gum, also offers many of the sensations and actions of regular cigarette smoking -- actually handling the device, and inhaling and exhaling a cloud of vapor that looks like smoke. Nicotine cartridges even come in tobacco flavor, to more closely mimic the experience of "real" smoking, though consumers also can opt for other flavors, such as chocolate or mint.

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While some e-cigarette users continue to smoke tobacco cigarettes as well, many switch over completely. Some smokers are taking up the e-cigarette with the assumption that even though it hasn't been conclusively proven safe, it's worth the risk, because the harmful effects of regular cigarettes are well known. But are they making a wise decision, or simply trading one set of health risks for another?

Health professionals suggest smokers use products that are known effective, such as the nicotine patch, to help them quit smoking.
Health professionals suggest smokers use products that are known effective, such as the nicotine patch, to help them quit smoking.
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Opponents of electronic cigarette use for smoking cessation have one central concern: the lack of testing and research to show that the product is effective and safe. Even though e-cigarette users are not breathing in smoke, they are still inhaling nicotine, an addictive substance. And it's nicotine in a liquid form, which organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association say has not been adequately tested for safety [source: WHO and AMA]. Health experts are concerned that users of e-cigarettes may be misled into thinking they're making a safe choice, when in fact the effects of inhaling nicotine vapor, particularly over the long term, are still unknown.

Regulatory and health agencies say that e-cigarettes may actually be doing a disservice to people who want to quit smoking, because smokers may choose these untested devices instead of one that has been proven effective, such as the nicotine patch, gum, lozenge or a nasal spray. They also worry that people will increase their overall nicotine consumption, because e-cigarettes can often be used in places like offices, malls, restaurants and even hospitals [source: WHO].

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In September 2010, the FDA took action against five electronic cigarette companies -- including E-CigaretteDirect, Ruyan America and Johnson's Creek Enterprises -- on the grounds that they were in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) [source: FDA]. Violations the FDA cited included unsubstantiated claims about the device and poor manufacturing processes. However, the FDA is willing to work with e-cigarette companies to conduct the research needed to prove the devices are effective and safe [source: FDA]. The "let the buyer beware" philosophy certainly applies to electronic cigarettes: Cautious consumers may want to monitor ongoing developments and hold off on trying the device until more evidence is available.

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Sources

  • Demick, Barbara. "A High-Tech Approach to Getting a Nicotine Fix." Los Angeles Times. April 25, 2009 (Sept. 3, 2010)http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/25/world/fg-china-cigarettes25
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  • Elliott, Debbie. "The New Frontier in War on Smoking." NPR. Aug. 5, 2009 (Jan. 5, 2011)http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111578997
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