COLUMN: Important facts about e-cigarettes

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By Diana Leathers

There has been a lot of recent conversation about electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes for short.

Some e-cigarettes resemble traditional cigarettes, but many do not. They are battery-operated products which deliver nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals which are inhaled by the user. Many include a LED light at the end to mimic the glow of a burning cigarette. However, they do not produce smoke, but a vapor which is a compound of chemicals — hence the popular term of “vaping” instead of smoking. 

There are about 260 brands of e-cigarettes, and that number is growing. They were first developed in China, and appeared in the U.S. in 2007.

With all the myths and misconceptions out there about e-cigarettes, what do we know? According to 2010-11 data, 21.2 percent of smokers had tried them. With the array of fruit and candy flavors available, they are also very attractive to youth – in 2012, 1.8 million youth used e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes are not regulated by the FDA for safety, so no one really knows how harmful they are. Because they are a relatively new product, there is no data on the effects of long-term use. Additionally, they are not a proven tobacco cessation tool; e-cigarettes still contain nicotine which is highly addictive.

There are many adverse health effects that have been linked to e-cigarette use. One of the most dangerous is the pulmonary problems that result from inhaling glycerin or propylene glycol which is used to create the vapor emitted from the end of the device. Also, nicotine is toxic to cells, and the level of toxicity varies widely by brand and the flavorings added. The secondhand vapor inhaled by people around the user contains several dangerous chemicals including nicotine particles. Many e-cigarette users are considered dual users, meaning that they are also using traditional tobacco products and getting a double dose of nicotine. There has also been a dramatic increase in poisoning incidents from children exposed to the nicotine cartridges from e-cigarettes — in 2012, there was a 333 percent increase in calls to Kentucky’s Poison Control Center due to nicotine poisoning.

So why are these products so popular? The retail industry has done a tremendous job of promoting these devices as a “safer” or “cleaner” alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes, even though this idea is not supported by fact. Because they are not regulated, there are no rules about how these products can be advertised as there are for other tobacco products. The companies that sell these products have taken advantage of this and use TV ads, celebrity endorsements, and merchandise giveaways to keep people smoking. Unfortunately, smoke-free ordinances typically do not cover e-cigarettes (only five communities in Kentucky have ordinances that cover their use indoors) so many people who struggled to quit tobacco have relapsed and moved on to e-cigarette use.

So what can you do if you are struggling with nicotine addiction? Contact your doctor or your local health department to find out about proven tobacco cessation programs. Also, Kentucky’s tobacco quit line (1-800-QUIT NOW or www.QuitNowKentucky.org) includes telephone, Internet and texting services to help you quit. Don’t buy into the myths – get the facts on electronic cigarettes.