What Are Electronic Cigarettes?
Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, are battery operated devices filled with liquid nicotine which is dissolved in a solution of water and propylene glycol. Many of them are designed to look like real cigarettes, with a white cylindrical tube, brown filter, and red-glowing tip. The electronic cigarette comes equipped with a re-chargeable battery, a plastic mouthpiece and a heating element.
How Do Electronic Cigarettes Work?
Puffing on the end of an electronic cigarette causes the battery to heat up the nicotine within, creating a vapor that is inhaled into the lungs. Many people coin the term "vaping" with the end result being the sensation of smoke inside the mouth without really smoking.
The mouthpiece of an e-cigarette contains a cartridge that's filled with liquid nicotine and other chemicals such as propylene glycol or glycerin. Special flavorings, such as tobacco, menthol, vanilla or caramel, are sometimes added to the nicotine to enhance the taste of the vapor. Nicotine cartridges are available in different strengths; some contain no nicotine at all.
Can I Use the Electronic Cigarette as a Quit Smoking Aid?
Many people who've tried them say that the electronic cigarette has helped them quit smoking; however, many of those same people remain addicted to nicotine, a toxic substance in-and-of itself.
There are a limited number of studies supporting the use of the e-cigarette as a quit aid. One small (40 subjects) Italian study concluded that the use of the e-cigarette significantly decreased cigarette consumption without causing serious side effects. Another study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that, compared to traditional nicotine replacement therapy products, electronic cigarettes produce greater six-month abstinence rates and therefore, show promise as an effective quit smoking tool. However, the most current research suggests that people who use e-cigarettes for at least one month are less likely to remain abstinent from cigarettes over time than those who've never used them.
About.com's Smoking Cessation Guide cites a couple of important reasons why the electronic cigarette may not be a good choice as a quit aid for someone who wants to quit smoking:
First, electronic cigarettes lack regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unlike traditional nicotine replacement therapy products, they are not medically endorsed to wean a person off nicotine in a safe, gradual way. Additionally, the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation, Office of Compliance conducted preliminary testing on two leading brands of e-cigarettes. Their analysis revealed the following findings:
- Cancer causing, tobacco-specific nitrosamines were detected in half of all samples tested.
- One cartridge contained diethylene glycol, a known ingredient in antifreeze.
- Of the cartridges labeled as containing no nicotine, all but one contained low levels of nicotine.
- Tobacco-specific impurities such as anabasine, myosmine and β-nicotyrine - each thought to be harmful to humans - were detected in most of the samples tested.
- Three cartridges labeled as containing the exact same amounts of nicotine contained markedly different levels of nicotine.
Another reason why e-cigarettes may not be an effective stop smoking aid is that they reinforce smoking behavior. About.com's Smoking Cessation Guide reminds us that recovery from nicotine addiction involves "healing from the physical addiction to nicotine and reprogramming old associations that involve smoking with new associations that do not." When you substitute smoking with a nicotine delivery system that looks just like a real cigarette and requires that you place it to your lips and inhale like you do a real cigarette, you are only reinforcing the behavior that you are trying so hard to quit. This is counterproductive.
Remember, if you do decide to try the electronic cigarette to help you quit smoking, talk to your doctor first, to discuss your options and the safest way to use them.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Electronic Cigarettes?
The FDA wants to regulate electronic cigarettes as medical products. Proponents of the e-cigarette believe they have no substantiated reason to do so. There are always two sides to every story, and the e-cigarette is no different. Learn more about the Pros and Cons of the E-cigarette.
What's the Best Way to Quit Smoking?
The best way to quit smoking is the one that works best for you. Using a variety of quit aids, along with counseling and quit smoking support groups, may improve your chances of quitting and remaining abstinent. For more information about smoking cessation, visit About.com's Quit Smoking Guide Site.
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FDA Consumer Health Information / U.S. Food and Drug Administration JULY 2009.
Polosa R., et. al. Effect of an electronic nicotine delivery device (e-Cigarette) on smoking reduction and cessation: a prospective 6-month pilot study. BMC Public Health. 2011 Oct 11;11:786. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-11-786.
Siegel, M.B. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published online ahead of print, Feb. 8, 2011.
Katrina A. Vickerman PhD., et. al. Use of Electronic Cigarettes Among State Tobacco Cessation Quitline Callers. Nicotine Tob Res (2013) doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntt061.