For many Canadians (and Canadian doctors), e-cigarettes are an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Though they are not regulated or approved for sale in Canada, they seem to be finding their way across the border in increasing quantities. The Canadian Medical Association Journal published a couple of great articles about them in a recent issue to teach Canadian doctors what e-cigarettes are all about. Here are some key points:
1. What are e-cigarettes?
They are canisters shaped like cigarettes, which release vapor containing flavoring agents, other chemicals, and sometimes nicotine. They are intended to simulate smoking without exposure to as many chemicals as tobacco.
2. Are e-cigarettes safer than smoking regular cigarettes?
Hard to say. Some studies show that e-cigarettes contain some impurities and carcinogens; also, the ones that contain nicotine still promote the nicotine dependence that keeps people addicted to smoking. Even worse, smoking e-cigarettes could induce an addiction in someone who was previously a nonsmoker.
3. Are e-cigarettes useful to help someone stop smoking?
Again, hard to say, as they have not been well studied. One randomized controlled clinical trial was not able to show superiority compared to nicotine patches. Contrast this with several other medication and behavioral approaches to smoking cessation which have been proven effective in clinical trials (the list is available here). Also, I would add to this discussion that stopping the physical behavior of smoking is an important component of stopping smoking as a habit – in other words, the action of e-smoking may be too close to actual smoking to actually help a person to break the behavior.
A concern in the US is that e-cigarette companies are free to tempt American youth with fruit flavored e-cigarettes and celebrity endorsements, effectively resurrecting marketing campaigns that the tobacco industry used to use. Thus, there is a fear that the e-cigarette industry could lure young people (or anyone for that matter) into nicotine addiction and possibly subsequent tobacco use.
So, while e-cigarettes may seem like a good idea on the surface, they have a dark side: those that contain nicotine propagate the addiction and may not effectively help people quit smoking; and even worse, they may lure non smokers into the dangerous world of smoking addiction.