Lung Cancer Home > The Disturbing Truth About E-Cigs

How much do we really know about e-cigs? Not as much as we could. At this time, e-cigs are not regulated like tobacco cigarettes and nicotine replacement products. This is a disturbing truth for a lot of people, since the safety of these products is still in question. More research needs to be done before we can know for sure.


Uncovering the Truth Behind E-Cigs

Although they are promoted as a healthy, smoke-free alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes, e-cigs (electronic cigarettes) are igniting quite the controversy. Are they safe? Can they help you quit smoking? Has any research been done on these things? Whether you've tried them, are just researching them, or are looking into it for a friend, let's start by looking at what we know as "truths" behind e-cigs.

What We Know

First off, we know what e-cigs are. E-cigs don't burn tobacco. They are battery-powered devices that provide nicotine-laced liquid and other additives that are vaporized ("vaped") into an aerosol that is inhaled by the user (the smoker inhales vapor rather than smoke). You can buy them just about anywhere, including gas stations, grocery stores, malls, and online. 
While it depends on the brand, e-cig cartridges usually contain nicotine, a component to produce the aerosol (such as propylene glycol or glycerol), and flavorings (such as fruit, mint, or chocolate). Many e-cigs are made to look like the traditional tobacco cigarettes and mimic the act of smoking, as a vapor mist is often expelled rather than tobacco smoke.
We also know that e-cigs exist in a "no man's land" of regulation. They are not (yet) subject to federal laws and regulations that apply to traditional cigarettes or to nicotine replacement products like nicotine patches. This means that e-cigs do not have to be registered, evaluated, or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are not currently regulated by the FDA.
With traditional cigarettes, there are federal laws that prohibit them from being sold to those younger than 18 years old, distributed as free samples, advertised on television and radio, and having certain flavors (such as candy and fruit flavors) that appeal to children. There is currently no federal ban on the use of such tactics by e-cig manufacturers.
As a result of the absent regulations, it appears that e-cig manufacturers are using some controversial marketing tactics to sell their products to minors. For instance, it appears that many of the e-cig companies are targeting the younger generations with some enticing flavors, such as bubble gum, cotton candy, Coca-Cola®, and various fruit flavors.
There is also a sort of "celebrity-ism" with e-cigs, as the e-cig manufacturers are going bold with their advertising, using celebrity endorsements on television, in the movies, and in print ads. You don't have to look far to find a picture of one of your favorite celebrities smoking an e-cig.
These companies may even be going as far as almost rebranding smoking as "cool," with the endorsements of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Charlie Sheen, and Katherine Heigl. You can also find a cartoon character named "Mr. Cool" used to help sell blu eCigs®. Critics of e-cigs state that glamorizing smoking in this way could wind up in reversing decades of progress that has been made to keep kids from becoming addicted to nicotine.
Public health advocates are concerned that such tactics are luring kids to e-cigs, potentially leading to them becoming addicted to nicotine. E-cig manufacturers are being accused of pushing the envelope with the tactics they are using to market their products -- and there are no regulations to stop them from doing that. There is also the concern that e-cigs could serve as a gateway to nicotine addiction, which may give way to regular cigarette smoking.
We also know that with the current interest in e-cigs, it has already become a multibillion-dollar industry. Although e-cigs have been in existence since the 1960s, they didn't hit the American market until 2007. Around that time, the industry consisted of mostly small, independent companies. Now, however, just about all of the major cigarette manufacturers are getting into the business.
More of what we know: Research has shown that e-cig experimentation and use has doubled among U.S. middle and high school students during 2011-2012, with approximately 1.78 million students having used e-cigs as of 2012. An estimated 160,000 students who reported using e-cigs in 2012 had never used conventional cigarettes.
This is a concern for many people, as the overall effects of e-cig use on public health still remains uncertain. The 2014 Surgeon General's Report also stated that exposure to nicotine in youth can increase the risk of nicotine addiction and that nicotine exposure during adolescence may have adverse effects on brain development.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FDA reported that because of the rapid increase in use of e-cigs in adolescents, it is critical to develop strategies to prevent marketing, sales, and use of e-cigs to kids.
It has taken decades of a federal ban on cigarette ads for radio and television to help deglamorize smoking for young people. Now, e-cig marketers are using a wide range of advertising techniques that were previously used by traditional cigarette companies to entice young people. Some of these techniques even include distributing samples.
So if these products are passed out to people as samples, what exactly are people inhaling? The FDA's Division of Pharmaceutical Analysis has examined the ingredients in a small sample of e-cig cartridges from two leading brands. One sample showed the presence of diethylene glycol, which is a chemical used in antifreeze and is toxic to humans. In other samples, various substances were detected, including carcinogens (like nitrosamines), irritants, genotoxins, animal carcinogens, and other toxic chemicals.
One particular study examined the secondhand emissions from several e-cigarettes in a human exposure chamber. Each e-cig was puffed six times, and the data was compared to that from a tobacco cigarette being puffed six times. The e-cig produced lower levels of toxins than the traditional cigarette. However, the e-cig still had elevated levels of toxins (such as acetone, acetic acid, and formaldehyde), which was around 20 percent of what the traditional cigarette put into the air.
While the e-cig doesn't appear to be as polluting as a conventional cigarette, e-cigs have been shown to release detectable levels of several significant carcinogens and toxins into the air.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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