E-Cigs: Is It Safe to Vape?

Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, MD


August 29, 2013

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Hello. I am Dr. Sandra Fryhofer. Welcome to Medicine Matters. The topic is electronic cigarettes: Is vaping safer than smoking? There's a new study in the journal Tobacco Control.[1] Here is why it matters.

Electronic cigarettes -- e-cigs -- look like cigarettes in size and shape, but they are nonflammable, so you don't smoke them. Instead, you "vape" them, and vaping seems to be catching on. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says their use is growing rapidly.[2] Already about 1 in 5 cigarette smokers in the United States have tried them, and they are available everywhere -- in retail outlets, on the Internet -- but experts disagree on whether vaping is safe.

Previous data from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed that one of the ingredients in e-cigarette vapor is polyethylene glycol, the chemical used for theatrical smoke. It is also an FDA-approved food additive commonly found in deodorants, moisturizers, and toothpaste. But that is not the only chemical found in e-cigs. The FDA says that analyses of at least 2 brands of e-cigs revealed detectible levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals, such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze, as well as small amounts of tobacco-specific nitrosamines.[3]

The new study in Tobacco Control [1]analyzed vapors from a dozen brands and also found some toxic substances, but at levels 9 to 450 times lower than in regular cigarette smoke, implying that vaping may be safer than smoking. Still, the impact of e-cigs on long-term health needs further study.

The CDC also says it is not clear whether e-cigs help people quit smoking. Many e-cigs also deliver nicotine, so the gadget still keeps some people addicted. It is not clear whether e-cigs will help smokers decrease or increase their use of traditional cigarettes.

There is also concern that electronic cigarettes could entice young people to try them, who would then get hooked on the nicotine. More research is needed. For now, trier and buyer beware.

For Medicine Matters, I am Dr. Sandra Fryhofer.


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