Editorial: Jury still out on e-cigarettes


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Over the past several decades, cigarettes have fallen far in the popular imagination. Once they were widely considered cool, slick, and “torches of freedom,” as one ad campaign branded them. Today, smoking is more widely seen as dirty, gross, and extremely unhealthy.

The struggle to quit smoking is infamous for its enormous difficulty and the highly addictive substance that makes it so, nicotine. An entire industry has emerged that produces products specifically to help people quit smoking. These include nicotine patches, nicotine gum, self-help materials, and most recently, electronic cigarettes (also called e-cigarettes).

While e-cigarettes have certain benefits and are likely safer than cigarettes, the government should establish clear regulations on the product until more is known about them.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices used to simulate cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. They heat liquid solutions, which are vaporized and inhaled by the user. Some solutions contain nicotine, while others are just flavored liquids.

These new products have also shown some degree of success in helping smokers quit. They are about as effective as nicotine patches, according to a recent study by researchers in New Zealand.

However, the chemicals composing the liquids used in e-cigarettes have drawn considerable concern. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that it does not know if the products are safe, and numerous researchers have written that further investigation is necessary to determine the potential dangers of e-cigarettes.

In 2010, the agency issued warning letters to five e-cigarette manufacturing corporations for violating the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because of the companies’ “unsubstantiated claims and poor manufacturing practices.”

As e-cigarettes are a new and changing technology, the long-term health effects are, of course, unknown. Even when sufficient time has passed, the chemicals in the liquids or heating process may change such that it would be difficult to draw conclusions about what e-cigarettes do to the human body.

So far, the research seems to suggest that e-cigarettes are substantially safer than their tobacco counterparts.

Konstantinos Farsalinos, a Greek researcher who studies e-cigarettes, wrote for the Ecigarette Research Advocacy group that while e-cigarettes may not be completely harmless, “It is obvious that the amount of chemicals found in e-cigarette vapor is lower compared to tobacco by orders of magnitude.”

Igor Burstyn, an associate professor of public health at Drexel University, wrote a meta-analysis of studies on e-cigarettes. He concluded that much of the existing literature that found concerning chemical concentrations is methodologically flawed. Many studies have overestimated and exaggerated the toxicity levels in chemicals and in the heating process for e-cigarettes.

The potential short-term health effects of e-cigarettes aside, there is reason to be concerned with the results of the National Youth Tobacco Survey. It found that between 2011 and 2012, e-cigarette use among high-school students more than doubled from 4.7 percent to 10 percent.

It doesn’t help that television advertisements for e-cigarettes are now bombarding consumers. Companies such as Blu eCigs are hiring prominent actors to appear in ads much in the same way that Winston used the 1960s cartoon “The Flintstones” to boost sales.

E-cigarettes are being marketed as an alternative to cigarettes, but some ads, such as one by FIN, portray them almost exactly like the “torches of freedom” of the early 20th century.

It seems unwise to launch a marketing spree for a product for which further research is required to understand potentially dangerous health effects and that may also introduce another generation to widespread nicotine addiction. At least until the effects of e-cigarettes are better understood, they should be subject to the same advertising restrictions as regular cigarettes.

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