Electronic cigarettes are all the rage – but can they really help you quit your tobacco habit?
They’ve been around for a decade but now it seems e-cigarettes are here to stay – with the number of current users estimated at around 600,000 to 750,000, according to the charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).
What are the pros and cons?
Celebrities like Hollywood star Johnny Depp and Eastenders soap octogenarian Dot Cotton (June Brown) have made e-cigarettes cool.
Smokers who are trying to quit still want the sensation of inhaling and lifting a cigarette to their mouth to take a drag – without the health hazards (although more on that later). The rest of us can tolerate them because there’s no horrible ciggy smoke clinging to our clothes and hair – or dangers to our health.
Some critics believe that e-cigarettes glamorize smoking and cause annoyance because they can be used in public places and circumvent the smoking ban. In addition, did you know that as the products aren’t regulated they can be sold to children?
E-cigarettes could be a life-saver
A quarter of all cancer deaths in the UK are attributable to smoking and Professor John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, says millions of lives a year − potentially half of all smokers − could be saved if they switched to e-cigarettes. “It stands to reason that switching to e-cigarettes from tobacco is going to be a positive health move.”
Did you know that e-cigarettes contain nicotine?
“Yes they contain nicotine – and could therefore be accused of perpetuating nicotine addiction – but nicotine is probably no more hazardous than caffeine,” says Professor Britton.
Professor Britton says researchers believe e-cigarettes may be beneficial because they imitate cigarettes and smokers still get nicotine and the sensation of inhaling.
Have you really thought about what’s in an e-cigarette?
The typical e-cig looks like a real cigarette but is made of stainless steel and has a chamber for storing liquid nicotine and a rechargeable battery. They don’t produce smoke but a watery vapour. They release a nicotine hit − but none of the harmful chemicals associated with tobacco (more about that later though).
Is there any quality control?
The short answer is no – and that’s the major problem at the moment. Although many health professionals believe e-cigarettes are infinitely preferable to tobacco cigarettes, the NHS can’t recommend/endorse them at the moment because there is no control over quality.
Back in 2008 the World Health Organization issued a statement about e-cigs saying that there was no evidence to prove they were safe or helped smokers break the habit.
E-cigarettes may contain harmful chemicals
In the US the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) carried out tests on 19 brands of e-cigarettes and found some contained harmful chemicals (diethylene glycol), also found in anti-freeze and cancer-causing agents.
The FDA therefore ruled that e-cigarettes must be marketed as tobacco products and not as smoking cessation devices.
However, although the 2008 FDA study did find traces of carcinogenic chemicals and one cartridge was contaminated with a poisonous chemical, these were still tiny amounts compared to those found in cigarette smoke. What’s your view? Would you still consider using an e-cigarette or would it make you think twice?
Other nicotine replacement products
“Even if some e-cigarettes have been found to contain traces of impurities – this is still only a tiny amount compared to that found in tobacco cigarettes,” explains Professor Britton.
“Nicotine replacement products available are not 100 per cent pure either – they are still manufactured from tobacco and contain very low levels of impurities − so you would expect the same in e-cigarettes.
“Even if nicotine in e-cigarettes isn’t completely pure, it will still probably be much less hazardous than the nicotine in tobacco. Pragmatists would argue they are a step in the right direction away from smoking tobacco.”
Things are about to change
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) issued their guidance on electronic cigarettes in June 2013. The NICE guidance does not recommend the use of electronic cigarettes as they are not currently regulated by the Medicine and Healthcare Regulatory products Agency (MHRA).
According to NICE “The guidance is about licensed products. There are no guaranties at present of the safety, efficacy and quality of e-cigarettes. We don't know what else is in them.”
The MHRA has announced that All nicotine-containing products (NCPs), such as electronic cigarettes, are to be regulated as medicines in a move to make these products safer and more effective to reduce the harms of smoking.
The UK Government has decided that the MHRA will regulate all NCPs as medicines, so that people using these products have the confidence that they are safe, are of the right quality and work.
Read the full MHRA press release
Join the debate here. Do you use e-cigarettes? If so, have they helped you quit smoking? Share your experiences and thoughts below.
WHO statement 2008
FDA survey of e-cigarettes reported in the New York Times