E-Cigarettes, a Healthier Alternative to Cigarettes? Not Quite

Organization: Author:
Robert Liou, M.D., pulmonologist, MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, Long Beach Medical Center
Live Healthy Topics:

Decades of research have shown that smoking negatively effects the body, but with little to no data, it’s not yet clear if e-cigarettes are harmful to the lungs and body.

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are battery operated products designed to deliver flavor and chemicals to the smoker. These chemicals, including nicotine, are turned into a vapor that is inhaled.

With e-cigarettes – sold in fruit flavors and shiny packaging – many people, including teens, see no harm in using these products. E-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

A 2014 study performed at University of Southern California on e-cigarettes found that the level of exposure to cancer-causing organic compounds was reduced to almost zero in second-hand e-cigarette smoke. However, chromium and nickel were detected in the smoke exhaled from    e-cigarettes at levels higher than traditional cigarettes.

Another study conducted by the Center for Environmental Health found levels of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, which are cancer-causing chemicals, inside e-cigarettes at 470 times higher than the California Safety Standard under Proposition 65.

The popularity of e-cigarettes remains high, yet all of the long-term effects on the body are still unknown. A step in the right direction was made earlier this year when the FDA finalized a rule extending its regulatory authority to cover all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. The FDA now regulates every aspect of production and manufacturing, including the sale and promotion of e-cigarettes.

Many e-cigarette companies market their product as a tool to help smokers quit. However, the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research has not approved any e-cigarette as a safe or effective method to help smokers quit.

While many people may choose e-cigarettes as an alternative to traditional cigarettes, continuous nicotine consumption in any form is unsafe. In addition to being an addictive substance, studies have shown that is has a negative impact on brain development for children and young adults.

While avoiding traditional cigarettes all together remains the best way to lower your chance of dying or suffering from lung cancer, emphysema, heart attacks and more, there are safer smoking cessation alternatives to e-cigarettes.

Nicotine replacement therapies are designed to wean the body off cigarettes, by supplying it with controlled nicotine amounts and reducing exposure to other chemicals found in tobacco products.

There are several nicotine replacement therapies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

  • Nicotine patch – With the patch, nicotine is gradually and steadily released into the bloodstream to reduce withdrawal symptoms.
  • Nicotine gum – The gum works by releasing small amounts of nicotine into the mouth lining to decrease withdrawal symptoms.
  • Nicotine lozenges – Lozenges deliver nicotine quickly through the mouth tissues.
  • Nicotine nasal spray – The nasal spray instantly delivers nicotine with one spray into each nostril. The spray is helpful for sudden cravings.
  • Nicotine inhaler – The inhaler delivers nicotine as quickly as nicotine gum.

There are other non-nicotine based medication therapies available to help you quit at the end of the nicotine replacement therapies.

If you’re thinking of quitting and aren’t sure what the best alternative is for you, consult your primary care physician. Make 2016 your year. Commit to quitting this Lung Cancer Awareness Month.