The Jury Is Out on Whether Electronic Cigarettes Are Less Harmful Than Their Conventional Counterparts
A Safer ‘Smoke?’
Jim Hampton was a pack-a-day smoker for 30 years. Like a lot of people, he tried to stop smoking using various methods — the patch, nicotine gum, even the medicine Chantix. But none of those worked for him. Then, at the age of 46, he had a wake-up call. While his habit hadn’t given him cancer, it did give him heart problems. One triple-bypass heart surgery was enough to convince him that he needed to change his behavior.
“You think about cancer. Everybody knows about that, but I didn’t think so much about it causing cardiovascular disease,” Hampton said. He had to find some alternative that would help him meet his nicotine cravings in a less-harmful manner. However, none of the other cessation methods satisfied the physical and psychological cravings that smokers encounter.
“There are two sides to smoking; there’s the physical addiction to nicotine and then the psychological dependence of the act of smoking,” he said. That’s the actual act of putting it in your mouth, drawing and inhaling, and it was this part of the equation that was missing for him.
That’s when he turned to electronic cigarettes. It was actually something he had tried, casually, once before. Invented in China and introduced to American smokers in 2007, four years before his heart surgery, “E-Cigs” are not conventional cigarettes and don’t burn tobacco. They can look like ordinary cigarettes, or pipes, or everyday items like writing pens. No matter their appearance, they are a nicotine delivery system that electronically heats up and vaporizes liquid nicotine. The smoker then inhales and exhales the vapor.
E-cig users call this “vaping” — long a, from the word “vapor” — and Hampton describes vaping as less harmful than tobacco cigarettes or other products. The liquid nicotine, called “e-juice,” is a solution of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavoring and a variable amount of nicotine. It’s a far cry from the 4,000 or so chemicals and carcinogens that burn in a conventional tobacco cigarette. The exhaled vapor is just that — a benign steam that dissipates rapidly without leaving that noxious cigarette smell behind. Hampton became such a believer in the device that he and his wife now own a store in Tallahassee that caters to the vaping crowd.
While E-cigarettes appear harmless, whether that’s truly the case is still up for debate. The Florida Department of Health’s Bureau of Tobacco Free Florida urges consumers to not only be wary of any perceived benefit but to wait until reliable scientific evidence is available. According to the Department of Health, there’s no peer-reviewed research in any credible medical or scientific journal to support the industry’s claim about the product’s safety and efficacy.
“Without scientific evidence from credible sources, we cannot endorse E-cigarettes as a beneficial step for smokers who are attempting to quit,” said Tobacco Free Florida Bureau Chief Shannon Hughes. “For smokers looking for an effective way to quit, the best plan is to talk to your health care provider or seek help from a qualified professional. Floridians have access to our free and proven-effective 3 Ways to Quit, which include counseling from a qualified Quit Coach and FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapy.”
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration took an early interest in E-cigarettes. Early in the product’s introduction, the FDA conducted limited lab studies on certain samples and found that quality control processes were not quite up to American standards or were nonexistent. Hampton added that at least one study sample, a pre-filled vial from China, contained the same chemical found in antifreeze.
“At that point they took steps to ban the import of those, but it was ultimately overturned and the manufacturers continue to make them,” he said. “Our liquid is USA-made, and we know what’s in it. I’m not going to sell anything I wouldn’t put in my own body, we are very confident in that aspect of it.”
While they’re not an FDA-approved smoking cessation alternative, Hampton said they’re not marketed as such anyway.
“We cannot market this, and we don’t market it, as smoking cessation. We market it as an alternative to a traditional, conventional cigarette, (one that is) 99 percent safer and healthier,” he said. And while he hasn’t quite quit nicotine altogether, some of his customers have used the device to do just that.
“We do have customers who want to reduce the level they have been using and were able to do that,” he said. “Many customers have quit. They’ve come in and said this is the last bottle, and some we haven’t seen again, and that’s great.”
The cost for E-cigarette starter kits at Hampton’s store, Just Vapin’, start at around $60. Costs for bottles of the “e-juice” vary depending on the size and nicotine strength. One Canadian “vaper” estimated the cost for him was about one third that of conventional cigarettes.
While it may have helped some adults quit the habit, Tobacco Free Florida and the FDA are concerned that youngsters could use “vaping” as a path to nicotine addiction. Many brands offer e-juice in fruit and candy flavors said to be enticing to young people. Hampton said he shares that concern but said there’s “no law on the books” preventing the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. His shop, however, chooses not to sell to anybody under the age of 18.
“But I will say this. If my child at 15 or 16 was addicted to cigarettes, I would much rather have them use this product, because I feel that strongly about it,” he said.