Up in smoke: Jury still out on e-cig safety

ISHPEMING – Electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigs” have exploded in popularity in the past couple years, often thought of as a safe alternative to tobacco or as a way to quit smoking.

But because of their relative newness, not much is known about their long-term health effects, and health officials are very cautious when talking with people trying to stop smoking who want to know if e-cigs are a viable cessation aid.

“As a cessation aid, I really wouldn’t recommend it to somebody, because I really do think it could be a reminder of what a cigarette is,” said Sarah Derwin, who does tobacco education for the Marquette County Health Department, and is coordinator of MCHD’s Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition. “And most people if they’re trying to quit they would eventually then go back to smoking, because vapor isn’t as good as that real cigarette.”

E-cigs come in many different brands, shapes and types. Some are disposable. Some have different flavors that can be mixed and matched. They work like this: a battery – often rechargeable by USB – heats a coil (called an “atomizer”), which in turn heats a cartridge filled with a liquid containing a combination of nicotine, vegetable glycerin – which helps create the thick “smoky” look of the exhaled vapor – and propylene glycol, which is found in, among other things, asthma inhalers. The heat of the coil vaporizes the nicotine cocktail, which users then inhale.

But Derwin says that just because they don’t contain tobacco, doesn’t necessarily make them safe.

“I look at some of them as a big question mark and I think a lot of people in the (health) field look at it (that way) – especially because these e-cigs haven’t been on the market like cigarettes have, where we can establish and say, ‘This causes that,'” she said. “So I always just proceed with a lot of caution.”

Derwin said the studies that have been done on e-cigs have contradicted claims by their manufacturers that they contain no additives or chemicals.

But “when they’ve been tested they’ve actually been found to have some different things in there, so I know a lot of people in the public health field are very cautious about them, myself included,” she said.

A lot of the rise in the e-cig’s popularity can be tied to Michigan passing a law making it illegal to smoke in bars, restaurants and other businesses. Derwin said that she and others had time to prepare for their “emergence on the market, considering a lot of states had gone smoke-free before us.”

She said the rise in popularity reflects marketing techniques by e-cig companies to capitalize on the fact that people can’t smoke indoors or even in certain public places anymore; and that it reflects the desire for people to have a legal alternative not only in bars and restaurants but in places like airplanes and airports, and motels.

However, some people have used e-cigs to successfully quit smoking. In fact, The Mining Journal ran an Associated Press article in its Sept. 10 issue about the results of a study finding that e-cigarettes are as effective as a cessation aid as the nicotine patch or gum.

Derwin said she’s heard from several people who have successfully quit. “When I have someone call me who truly has quit from them, I definitely say, ‘That’s great, that’s awesome,'” she said. But it’s just as important, she says, to have a timeline for then getting off the e-cigs as well – just as someone who quits using the nicotine patch or gum would eventually wean themselves off of those products.