Are E-Cigarettes the New Gateway to Addiction?

What do you do if you want to quit smoking, but still need your fix? You turn to nicotine patches, gum, or more recently, to e-cigarettes. But there’s a heated debate going on around e-cigarettes: Are they really as safe as manufacturers like to claim? While they may help some people quit smoking, studies show that e-cigarettes might spell death for our teens.

What Are E-Cigarettes?

An e-cigarette is a handheld battery operated device with a refillable cartridge containing a fluid with nicotine. When the solution is heated, it releases a vapor which is why using e-cigarettes is called vaping. Nicotine is extracted from tobacco and then mixed with other ingredients, including water, nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, and flavoring to make the vaping liquid.

Help to Quit Smoking

E-cigarettes were developed to help smokers quit smoking. According to a report from the Royal College of Physicians, e-cigarettes can help you stop smoking and are less harmful than normal cigarettes. When you try to quit you not only crave the nicotine, but also the habit that goes with it – one of socializing while doing something with your hands. Gum and patches give you the nicotine fix, but not the habit fix. In recent years, the use of e-cigarettes surpassed the use of gum and patches to help smokers quit. They’re becoming so popular that they are starting to pose a threat to the tobacco industry.

Are E-Cigarettes Risk-Free?

Definitely not. Nicotine is an addictive substance, although some studies estimate the harm caused by vaping is less than 5% the damage resulting from regular cigarettes. But any amount of exposure to nicotine has negative effects. Most worrisome is that it can impact the brain development of adolescents.  If you smoke while pregnant, the nicotine harms the fetus’ lungs and brain along with causing a low birth weight.

The other, more dangerous side to e-cigarettes is caused by the rest of the ingredients found in the vaping solution. When two of the leading brands were tested for ingredients, toxic cancer-causing chemicals were found. Some of the brands contain more nicotine than is actually listed on their packaging. But if you talk to the manufacturers of e-cigarettes, they will deny these claims and can do so since this industry is not regulated by the federal government.

What’s Happening with Our Teens?

Probably the most alarming finding so far comes from a study done by the USC on our teens. The survey was conducted on 300 11th and 12th-grade students from high schools in Southern California. The study found that teens who try e-cigarettes are six times more likely to try regular cigarettes within two years than those who never vaped. The teens were first questioned in 2014, where at least half of them admitted to trying e-cigarettes at least once. In 2015, 40% of those students tried regular cigarettes.

The Future of E-Cigarettes and the FDA’s Role

E-cigarettes are only about a decade old but are becoming highly popular. It’s clear that e-cigarettes and the possible harm they pose cannot be ignored anymore. More research is urgently needed to evaluate their benefits and risks properly.

In May 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced they are taking steps to crack down on harmful e-cigarettes. One of the rules they want to enforce is the ban on sales to people under the age of eighteen. Manufacturers need to register with them before August 2016, after which the FDA will start to test the estimated 500 brands and 7,700 flavors for ingredients and evaluate their risks.

A regulated e-cigarette industry will have the following benefits:

E-cigarettes were developed strictly to help smokers quit smoking.  It was never supposed to become the gateway to smoking for teens. But now that it has, serious action is needed. Currently, the e-cigarette industry is like the Wild West. Anything goes, and those with the most guns, a.k.a. the biggest marketing budget, can sell us lies without getting caught. Giving the FDA power to regulate the industry is a big win.

Dr. Payal Bhandari Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. is a leading practitioner of integrative and functional medicine in San Francisco.

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