E-cigarettes are popular among some who want to avoid smoking bans or who are trying to kick the habit. Learn more about electronic cigarettes and how they compare to FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapies.
If you’ve ever seen someone holding an electronic cigarette, blowing “smoke” in a nonsmoking area, they are not defying the law. Why? Because it’s not smoke, it’s water vapor that contains the drug nicotine along with other chemicals. People who use e-cigarettes say that “vaping” – e-cigarette lingo for smoking – satisfies their nicotine craving. But the FDA warns that e-cigarettes may not be safe.
Ask someone why they are puffing on an e-cigarette and they are likely to tell you it’s just like smoking or that it tastes good. Some e-cigarettes are flavored. They may tell you they e-smoke to help them quit cigarette smoking. There’s no tobacco, like in a regular cigarette. But it does deliver nicotine and other dangerous chemicals from a device that the FDA has not approved. The FDA tested samples from two brands of e-cigarettes currently on the market. Samples contained cancer-causing chemicals and other toxic chemicals such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze.
What is an e-cigarette?
An electronic cigarette is a battery-powered device for delivering a very addictive drug: nicotine. It looks like a cigarette. It’s actually a metal tube and contains no tobacco.
Each e-cigarette comes apart into two pieces: a battery portion and a cartridge containing nicotine. You place the cartridge end in the mouth and puff on it like a real cigarette. When you inhale, a heating element produces a fine mist that contains nicotine. At the moment you inhale, colorless, odorless water vapor enters the mouth and delivers the nicotine. At the same time, an LED light turns red at the other end, simulating a glowing cigarette.
What is the difference between electronic cigarettes and nicotine replacement therapy?
Nicotine replacement therapy is an approved method to help you quit smoking. In this therapy a measured dose of nicotine is delivered to the body to help you get over symptoms of nicotine withdrawal that set in soon after you quit smoking. The aim is to cut your dose of nicotine over time until you are free of the drug completely. For example, if you are using a nicotine patch, you absorb nicotine through the skin. You wean yourself off of nicotine by switching to a lower dose patch over a few weeks and wear the patch for a shorter amount of time. At present, there are five FDA-approved forms of nicotine replacement therapies: The patch, nicotine gum, nicotine spray and inhaler and nicotine lozenges.
How does the e-cigarette differ from the nicotine inhaler?
Nicotine inhalers are another form of FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapy. You need a doctor’s prescription to use them. The inhaler consists of a thin plastic tube. Inside is a cartridge that holds a measured amount of nicotine. You inhale on the mouth end of the tube and nicotine is delivered to the mouth. Again, the cartridges use gradually reduced amounts of nicotine as you withdraw from the drug.
The nicotine inhaler is a proven effective method to help you quit smoking. E-cigarettes are still being researched in clinical trials.
What else do I need to know about e-cigarettes?
- E-cigarettes are not an FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapy.
- Any statement that e-cigarettes are a safe and effective smoking cessation aid is not proven by the FDA or the World Health Organization.
- The exact amount of nicotine inhaled through an electronic cigarette is not known. It and other chemicals in the cartridges likely vary among brands.
- Nonsmokers may get hooked on nicotine if they start using electronic cigarettes. Smokers may increase their dose of nicotine if they also use other tobacco products while using e-cigarettes.
- Young smokers may get hooked on e-cigarettes (and nicotine) due to their enticing flavors.