The use of electronic cigarettes, popularly known as “e-cigarettes,” is on the rise, particularly among young people. Unlike conventional cigarettes, e-cigarettes are unregulated.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that provide doses of nicotine and other additives to the user in an aerosol mist, without emitting tobacco smoke as traditional cigarettes do.
Findings from the National Youth Tobacco Survey show the percentage of high school students who reported using an e-cigarette rose from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. Use also doubled among middle school students.
No local data on the use of e-cigarettes is available because of the novelty of the products. Because e-cigarettes are unregulated for the most part, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not have specific information about amounts and types of components found in them.
E-cigarette makers have touted the devices as a “safe” alternative to conventional cigarettes, but health officials warn the nicotine contained in e-cigarettes is addictive.
“There’s no safe level of tobacco and there’s no safe level of nicotine,” said Meredith Capps, health education supervisor for the Edgecombe County Health Department.
Harold P. Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, advocates for the regulation of e-cigarettes by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in a column published by CNN on Tuesday. He argues that in the absence of regulation, people have “no way of knowing” the short or long-term health risks of smoking e-cigarettes or the chemicals contained in them.
A proposal to regulate e-cigarettes and other tobacco products has been under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget since Oct. 1, 2013.
Some smokers have switched to e-cigarettes as an alternative to conventional cigarettes, but the effectiveness of using e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid has not been scientifically proven.
The American Association of Public Health Physicians’ has not yet released an official statement on the state regulation of e-cigarettes. However, the Association says in accordance with its “principles of tobacco control,” smokers who have tried but failed to quit using medical guidance and pharmaceutical products or who do not wish to quit smoking should consider switching to a “less hazardous smoke-free tobacco/ nicotine product,” such as an e-cigarette, a dissolvable strip or chewing tobacco.
One local smoker, John Carson, 56, made the switch from conventional to e-cigarettes last year. Carson said he stopped smoking conventional cigarettes on March 22, 2013, around the time he had triple bypass surgery. In May of that year, he started smoking e-cigarettes. He had been smoking since his early 20’s.
“I didn’t want to quit smoking. I enjoyed smoking for whatever reason,” he said.
When Carson smoked tobacco cigarettes, he said he smoked “easily a pack to two packs a day.” Since he made the switch to e-cigarettes, he finds himself smoking less often.
“It’s cheaper and I’m smoking less.”
Carson buys replacement cartridges for his e-cigarette device and said a cartridge is the equivalent of anywhere from a pack to a pack and a half of cigarettes.
“It takes me three, four days to run through one of those,” he said. On Tuesday, Carson said he bought 10 cartridges of Mistic e-cigarettes for $20, and that supply will last him at least a month. A pack of conventional cigarettes costs anywhere from $4 to $5 or more.
Carson has also noticed differences that he attributes to the inhalation of vapor from e-cigarettes versus tobacco smoke from conventional cigarettes.
“I breathe better. I don’t have as much congestion,” he said. “My singing voice is better. There’s more tone to it.”
While switching to e-cigarettes has effectively helped some smokers quit smoking conventional cigarettes, the National Youth Tobacco Survey points to the opposite result among teen smokers.
The survey found that 76.3 percent of middle and high school students who used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days also smoked conventional cigarettes in the same timeframe. According to the CDC, that data raises concern that the use of e-cigarettes may be an “entry point” to the use of conventional tobacco products among young people.
“The increased use of e-cigarettes by teens is deeply troubling,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden. “Nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Many teens who start with e-cigarettes may be condemned to struggling with a lifelong addiction to nicotine and conventional cigarettes.”
Capps said the health department previously had a teen tobacco use prevention/ education program called Tobacco Reality Unfiltered (TRU) funded by the North Carolina Health & Wellness Trust Fund, but funding for the program went away a couple of years ago.
“There’s not that push for education and awareness from the state level,” Capps said. “I think we’re going to see some of our numbers with our teens (using tobacco) start to rise.”
Capps believes the introduction of novel products such as e-cigarettes will only contribute to that rise in numbers.
The health department offers a smoking cessation aid program, but currently has no program such as TRU specifically targeted toward teens.