Are e-cigarettes a threat to the progress made in reducing smoking, as public health officials say?
Or are they a new tool to help smokers quit or at least reduce the harm of smoking, as many proponents believe?
A pair of new studies shatters the optimists’ view.
Among 1,000 California smokers tracked for a year, those who used e-cigarettes, or “vapes,” were almost 60 percent less likely to quit smoking. They were also only half as likely to reduce the number of cigarettes they smoked.
“Based on the idea that smokers use e-cigarettes to quit smoking, we hypothesized that smokers who used these products would be more successful in quitting. But the research revealed the contrary,” said Dr. Wael Al-Delaimy, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. “We need further studies to answer why they cannot quit. One hypothesis is that smokers are receiving an increase in nicotine dose by using e-cigarettes.”
Use of E-Cigarettes Triples in Schools
E-cigarettes may also encourage more young people to start smoking, according to government data.
The number of high school students using the devices tripled from 2013 to 2014, according to the most recent results from the National Youth Tobacco Survey.
In 2013, 4.5 percent of high schoolers smoked e-cigarettes. In 2014, more than 13 percent — 2 million students — were using the nicotine vaporizers. Use nearly quadrupled among middle school students in the same period, from 1.1 to 3.9 percent.
The increases led e-cigarette use to surpass the use of conventional cigarettes for the first time. Hookah use doubled in both age groups during the same period.
Mitch Zeller, director of the Center for Tobacco Products at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), called those numbers “astounding and concerning.”
“The striking increase in middle school and high school use of e-cigarettes and hookah is really a public health emergency. A tripling of e-cigarette use in one year is just an astounding finding,” Zeller said.
Proponents point out that the devices don’t deliver all of the additives that conventional cigarettes do, making them safer.
Nicotine Especially Risky for Young People
With so many products on the market, it’s not known what exactly they contain. But no one disputes that e-cigarettes contain nicotine.
That makes their use in young people particularly dangerous because nicotine has been shown to interfere with brain development.
“Nicotine is very harmful to the developing child and adolescent brain,” Zeller said. “Parents should take no comfort in the fact that their kids are using an e-cigarette rather than a burning cigarette because of the presence of nicotine.”
A study published late last year suggested that many student users of e-cigarettes were not those who would otherwise have smoked conventional cigarettes. This finding also chipped away at the claim that vapes offer a less toxic alternative to cigarettes.
The FDA has moved to expand its authority to regulate tobacco products to include the nicotine-based e-cigarettes, but the rule is not yet final.