Electronic Cigarettes? Best to Butt Out
The jury is out as to whether the electronic or "e" cigarette is safer than its paper and tobacco counterpart, but growing numbers of smokers are turning to this gadget to get their nicotine fix and, in some instances, try to quit the smoking habit.
According to The Economist, e-cigarette sales doubled last year and are expected to double again in 2013. An article in Bloomberg Businessweek predicts that in the next few years in the United States alone, annual sales of electronic cigarettes will top $1 billion.
Available in a variety of fruit and candy flavors, e-cigarettes are mini-vaporizers. A battery heats up a cartridge of liquid nicotine generating a mist that the user inhales while the end of the device flares like a typical cigarette. Both the nicotine habit and the smoking ritual are satisfied but without actually burning tobacco and exposing the smoker and any non-smokers in the vicinity to the host of carcinogenic substances – arsenic, benzene and beryllium, for example – found in tobacco smoke. This bolsters claims from manufacturers that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to conventional cigarettes.
However, "One should not say that e-cigarettes are risk-free," says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. He notes that research conducted by the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Division of Pharmaceutical Analysis found that, in addition to liquid nicotine, some e-cigarette cartridges contain diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze and, on occasion, nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.
"There is a problem in the regulation of e-cigarettes," says Sabitoni. "Because they are tobacco-free, the FDA, which regulates cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco, does not have jurisdiction."
The agency has issued a proposed rule that, if approved, will expand its authority to include the devices. A statement on the FDA website explains the oversight argument:
"As the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes have not been fully studied, consumers of e-cigarette products currently have no way of knowing:
- whether e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use,
- how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or
- if there are any benefits associated with using these products."
Unlike tobacco products – buyers must be at least 18 – no federal age restriction is attached to e-cigarette sales (some states have enacted their own laws). That and the fact that they are available in flavors such as chocolate, strawberry and mint has fueled concerns that minors are being encouraged to try e-cigarettes. If they are enticed, they are at an increased risk of becoming addicted. Anyone who uses a nicotine product can develop an addiction, but studies show that the younger someone is, the more likely they are to get hooked.
"Until more is known about the long-term health consequences of inhaling nicotine vapor," says Sabitoni, "no one should assume that e-cigarettes are safer than conventional cigarettes. The best advice regarding using e-cigarettes is the same as for conventional cigarettes and other tobacco products: Do not use them."
If the attraction is that e-cigarettes can help with quitting smoking, consider nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) such as nicotine gum, patches and inhalers. These therapies are safe, FDA-approved and proven at helping smokers to end their addictions.
The LHSFNA’s Laborers’ Guide to Tobacco and Quit Smoking Survival Kits offer suggestions and tips for breaking the tobacco habit. They can be ordered through the Fund’s Publications Catalogue along with brochures and posters that contain additional information about the hazards of tobacco.
The American Cancer Society also offers a guide for quitting smoking. Call 1-800-227-2345 for additional information.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]