Health & Medicine

Think e-cigarettes are a good alternative to smoking? Think again.

Sandeep Sharma
Sandeep Sharma

You’ve probably seen someone using an electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette. The giveaway is the cloud of steam that puffs up instead of smoke. Use of these devices is increasing among both teenagers and adults.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, e-cigarettes are devices that allow users to inhale an aerosol (vapor) containing nicotine or other substances. Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes are generally battery-operated and use a heating element to heat e-liquid from a refillable cartridge, releasing a chemical-filled aerosol.

But little is known about the ingredients or long-term effects of using e-cigarettes. Any time you introduce foreign substances into the lungs, whether it is vapor mist or smoke-filled carcinogen, it has the risk to damage the body.

Initial studies show that e-cigarettes contain nicotine and also may add in other harmful chemicals, including carcinogens and lung irritants. Almost all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, an addictive substance. Newer e-cigarette devices, with higher voltage such as “tank” styles, deliver a greater concentration of nicotine. The more nicotine ingested the greater potential for addiction.

Flavors in e-cigarettes, used to target kids, are a cause for concern. E-cigarette and flavor manufacturers claim that the flavor ingredients used in e-cigarettes are safe because they have FEMA GRAS status, a reference to the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States’ assessment that the flavor ingredients are generally recognized as safe.

Such statements are false and misleading. The reality is that FEMA GRAS status only applies to food, meaning it’s safe to eat but does not apply to inhaling through e-cigarettes.

Diacetyl, a buttery-flavored chemical often added to food products such as popcorn, caramel and dairy products, has been found in some e-cigarettes. Diacetyl can cause a serious and irreversible lung disease commonly known as “popcorn lung.”

Aside from concerns about e-cigarette use and emissions alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that calls to the nation’s poison control for e-cigarette exposure poisonings are rapidly increasing. One study found that while most calls involving e-cigarette liquid poisoning came from accidental ingestion of the e-cigarette liquid, about one-sixth of the calls were related to someone inhaling these items. Exposure through the skin or eyes was also reported.

The only time e-cigarettes might be helpful is if they are used as a temporary aid to quit smoking. The FDA recently announced that the agency will start regulating the sale of e-cigarettes as it does tobacco, so they can’t be sold to people younger than 18. This action is especially important given the rapid rise in youth use of e-cigarettes in the U.S. over the past several years.

Dr. Sandeep Sharma, a pulmonologist with Baptist Health Medical Group Pulmonology Critical Care Medicine, practices at Baptist Health Corbin.