It’s been a big week for smokers, with the FDA announcing that it was giving final approval to the controversial electronic cigarettes and some states passing laws against vaping.
The news comes on the heels of an announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that the rate of teen vaping is at its highest level since 2011. The CDC also said that more than half of high school students have tried e-cigarettes, even though they know them to be unsafe. So what do we know about whether e-cigarettes are effective in helping people stop smoking or quitting altogether?
The short answer is not much. There hasn’t been enough research done yet. But as far back as 2009, there have been studies showing that using e-cigs can reduce the amount of tobacco smoke someone inhales, which makes sense since e-cigarettes don’t actually contain any tobacco or nicotine. However, the jury is still out on whether these devices really help people cut down on their cigarette use, especially if they’ve already given up on trying to quit by other means.
That’s because most of the existing scientific literature has focused on the health effects of vaping rather than the effectiveness of the actual products themselves. In fact, until recently, the only real data on the matter came from a small 2012 study conducted at Duke University Medical Center. That study found that smokers who used e-cigarettes had significant improvements in their lung function compared to those who just smoked regular cigarettes. But the researchers cautioned that while their results were promising, they couldn’t say anything definitive about the impact e-cigarettes may have on people’s overall health.
Another recent study published in the journal Tobacco Control found similar results: Compared to smokers who weren’t using e-cigarettes, those who did saw their blood levels of cotinine—a component in tobacco smoke—drop after six months. However, this study wasn’t designed to track how many participants gave up smoking completely, so the findings aren’t particularly helpful when it comes to figuring out whether e-cigarette users eventually quit smoking entirely.
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Still, it seems like e-cigarettes are making a difference for some people. A 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that after two years, people who used e-cigarettes were significantly less likely to smoke traditional cigarettes than those who didn’t. And other studies have shown that e-cigarette users are less likely to experience symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, which might suggest that they’re getting a better dose of nicotine than smokers who continue to puff away on unfiltered cigarettes.
But again, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should expect your friends to start puffing on vaporizers instead of regular tobacco. As mentioned above, the science is pretty limited right now. And there isn’t enough evidence to say for sure that vaping helps smokers kick the habit.
“I think the thing to keep in mind here is that smoking rates are dropping all over the world. Whether that’s due to e-cigarettes specifically or something else, I don’t know,” Dr. James Oleske, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and author of the 2017 paper from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, told us. “I believe there are more reasons why smoking rates are going down than e-cigarettes.”
Oleske said that he believes e-cigarettes are probably safer than smoking regular cigarettes, but there are still concerns about where the nicotine comes from. E-liquid contains nicotine and flavorings, both of which could potentially be harmful in higher doses. And while some manufacturers claim their products are safe, others don’t bother to test them for safety. It would be nice if the FDA regulated all e-liquids so that consumers knew exactly what they were buying, but that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
“In terms of safety, it’s hard for me to make a blanket statement about e-cigarettes, and that’s partly because there’s no regulation around vaping products,” Oleske said. “There are some good things about the current regulatory system, and there are some bad things about the current regulatory system, too.”
So, for now, it looks like the best thing to do is to do your own research. If you’re interested in vaping, find out which brands are the safest and read reviews online before you buy. You might also want to check out your local pharmacy and ask a pharmacist if they stock vape liquids. They might have recommendations based on your specific needs.
And while the evidence is limited, it does seem like e-cigarettes could be a viable way to give up regular cigarettes. Just remember that smoking e-cigarettes is still incredibly dangerous. According to the American Lung Association, there was a spike in e-cigarette usage among teens during the first half of 2018, and teens between ages 12 and 17 made up more than 40 percent of all adult vapers.
If you decide to try e-cigarettes, you can find information about how to safely use them from the FDA and the U.S. Public Health Service.