E-cigarettes can help smokers quit, but have own risks

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For musician and music teacher Mark McCarthy, 27, e-cigarettes seemed like a good alternative to the real thing. A pack-a-day smoker since the age of 18, the Atlantic Highlands, N.J., resident first learned about e-cigarettes from a friend, and has since built them into his daily routine.

“A lot of times at work there’s no time to go outside and take a smoke break,” he said, “so I’ll take a puff of an e-cigarette to take the edge off, because they don’t smell and you can smoke them inside.”

Though he admits that they don’t necessarily provide him with all of the “fullness or ritual” of a standard cigarette experience, “they’re a good product,” he said. “They’re fairly comparable in price to a pack of regular cigarettes and I enjoy them.”

According to StatisticsBrain.com, so do some 2 million to 3 million other people in the U.S. — roughly 5 percent to 6 percent of America’s 45 million smokers. And they are a market that’s growing rapidly.

First launched in 2007 and posting just $20 million in sales the following year, e-cigarette — or electronic cigarettes — sales in the U.S. have doubled every year since, topping $1 billion in 2013. A though still a small slice of the total $80 billion market for tobacco products, experts say they could be on a trajectory to surpass traditional cigarette sales within the next quarter-century.

But are they a safe solution? Medical, policy, and retail experts weigh in:

A safer alternative?

“The mouth, lungs, skin and intestines are extremely absorptive surfaces, so when gas exchanges occur in these areas, nicotine goes right to the brain and becomes a very potent addictive agent which can cause circulatory disorders and increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and stroke,” said Dr.Robert Lahita, chairman of medicine and vice president of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, a Barnabas Health facility.

However, he said, “traditional paper cigarettes contain a lot of other carcinogens, and the burning of their tobacco, tar, carbons and other harmful chemicals creates tremendous toxic side effects. So, in many ways, nicotine is the least of a smoker’s concerns.”

Cristine Delnevo, professor and director of the Center for Tobacco Surveillance and Evaluation Research at the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Brunswick, N.J., agreed.

“There are over 7,000 chemicals in traditional cigarette smoke, hundreds of them are toxic, and 70 of them are known to cause cancer,” she said. By contrast, “there are usually only a few ingredients in e-cigarette liquid/vapor and, while an e-cigarette’s nicotine content and toxicants can vary greatly from one brand to another, the research to-date suggests that the levels of toxicants found in e-cigarettes are on an order of magnitude lower than those found in traditional cigarette smoke.”

A cessation solution?

At Lighthouse Cigars in Hazlet, N.J., where owner Ralph J. Seber III has been selling e-cigarettes for three to four years, he observed that these smokeless substitutes do fill a need.

“There’s no second-hand harm or offense to other people because they emit a water-based vapor as opposed to smoke and you can ‘relight’ them at any time versus the ‘use it or lose it’ nature of paper cigarettes,” Seber said.

At $50 for a “starter kit,” which includes the battery-powered portion, a USB charger and two nicotine cartridges that deliver roughly the same nicotine level as two packs of standard cigarettes, “they’ve been pretty popular and our sales have definitely increased over time,” Seber said.

“You can buy different strengths of nicotine, including ‘high,’ ‘regular,’ ‘light,’ and ‘zero,’ which is just vapor, and you can smoke these in spots that weren’t traditionally acceptable before, so this product is appealing to people who are looking to quit,” he added.

In that respect, e-cigarettes have drawn some praise.

“Traditional cigarettes are the most dangerous tobacco product on the market and, although we don’t know every risk associated with e-cigarettes, scientists have confirmed that e-cigarettes contain far fewer chemicals than cigarettes and fall considerably lower on a continuum of health risks,” Delnevo said. If current smokers who are unwilling or unable to quit using traditional cigarettes switched fully to e-cigarettes, public health could greatly benefit from the likely reduction in morbidity and mortality associated with cigarette smoking.”

Lahita concurred.

In addition to offering a design that satisfies those with an oral fixation or the need to hold something, which nicotine patches and gum products may not completely fulfill, “e-cigarettes are a cleaner delivery system for nicotine,” he said, “and may be among the best options out there for mature adults who are trying to wean themselves off of nicotine and quit smoking.”

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