You see them everywhere. Adults walking in no-smoking zones exhaling huge clouds of white with ball-point-pen-shaped devices in their hands. My patients often tell me they’re switching to e-cigarettes when I remind them that they need to quit smoking.
Are e-cigarettes safer than regular cigarettes? Do they help smokers quit? What impact are they having on our teenagers?
As parents, we need to understand the appeal of e-cigarettes to our teenagers and what the health risks are.
E-cigarettes are electronic devices that provide a vapor that contains carrier chemicals, nicotine and flavorings. They don’t contain tobacco and therefore don’t expose the user to the carcinogens and other harmful additives in traditional cigarettes. They are seen as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
But are they really safer?
According to the American Lung Association, the chemicals in e-cigarettes are largely untested. Because they are usually marketed without drug claims, companies don’t have to disclose or test their ingredients for safety. One chemical, called diacetyl, is associated with a lung condition called popcorn lung.
Nicotine itself is NOT safe. It doesn’t matter whether a user gets nicotine from patches, gums, lozenges, e-cigs or traditional cigarettes, it is harmful to the brain and to the circulatory system. Nicotine is harmful to developing fetuses and therefore pregnant women should NOT smoke or use e-cigarettes.
Newer research shows that the brains of young people continue developing far longer than was previously thought. (This is not a surprise to those of us raising teens, right?) Use of nicotine is associated with problems of working memory and attention in adolescents.
Do e-cigarettes help smokers quit?
No, they don’t. Evidence is pretty clear that using e-cigs actually REDUCES the likelihood of quitting smoking.
There was a survey done in North Carolina of middle- and high-school students about the use of cigarettes and e-cigarettes. It found that use of e-cigs increased 4-fold between 2011 and 2013. Those who used both cigarettes and e-cigarettes were actually LESS likely to quit (and less likely to try to quit) than those who smoked cigarettes alone. Teens who use e-cigs are more likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes as well.
An study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last month reported that those who use e-cigs are about half as likely to quit smoking cigarettes as those who don’t. Using e-cigs keeps people from quitting smoking!
There has never been any evidence that e-cigarettes help smokers quit. They cannot be marketed as a smoking cessation aid, but that doesn’t stop people from believing they will help.
As parents raising teenagers it is important we talk to our kids about e-cigs. They will hear that e-cigs are safe, that they are just a fun, tasty way to get a little nicotine buzz. E-cigs are heavily marketed to the adolescent age group.
The truth is that they are addictive, dangerous drugs that should be considered a gateway to traditional cigarettes. They hurt teenagers’ ability to learn and process new information. They are harmful to the lungs and circulatory system just as traditional cigarettes are.
When we’re talking to our kids about smoking, alcohol, drugs and sex, we can’t forget to cover the dangers of e-cigarettes because marketing messages and their friends certainly won’t give them the whole story.