The jury is out on e-cigarettes. While vaping or other forms of e-smoking may promote nicotine addiction, they could also be beneficial to tobacco smokers seeking to quit the habit, says a new report from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
So far, the long-term research on e-cigarettes remains “limited,” although The National Academies analyzed more than 800 peer-reviewed studies as the basis of its report presented to the U.S. Congress.
The use of e-cigarettes, which involves a device that heats up nicotine-containing liquid to create a smokeless vapor, is “far less harmful” than traditional tobacco cigarettes, says the report. Vaping products contain far lower levels of harmful chemicals and toxins than regular cigarettes, and the vaping trend may even be beneficial to people who want to stop smoking.
“E-cigarettes cannot be simply categorized as either beneficial or harmful,” said David Eaton, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and dean and vice provost of the Graduate School of the University of Washington, Seattle.
“In some circumstances, such as their use by non-smoking adolescents and young adults, their adverse effects clearly warrant concern. In other cases, such as when adult smokers use them to quit smoking, they offer an opportunity to reduce smoking-related illness,” said Eaton.
Yet not all health groups think the benefits of vaping outweigh the potential negatives.
“E-cigarettes may help adult smokers move away from conventional cigarettes and possibly reduce their exposure to the harmful toxicants and carcinogens they contain,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. “But it’s important to remember that switching to e-cigarettes does not achieve the ultimate goal – quitting tobacco and ending an addiction to nicotine once and for all. We hope that message is not lost on the public as it absorbs this latest analysis.”
“We agree with the National Academies that the jury is still out on the benefits and harmful effects of e-cigarettes, especially in the long-term,” added Brown.
Until more conclusive studies shed light on the effects of vaping after years or decades of use, some health organizations are calling on the Food and Drug Administration to carefully monitor the playing field.
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“Until we have sufficient scientific data, we must have strong FDA regulation of these products and any new versions that come on the market,” said Brown.
The majority of vaping users are young adults, and more males than females tend to use electronic products, says The National Academies. That bears watching, as overall smoking rates among American youth have fallen in the past years.
“E-cigarettes have become the most popular tobacco product among youth, continuing to attract and addict our kids to nicotine while exposing them to potentially dangerous toxins and carcinogens,” said Harold P. Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association. Wimmer called e-cigarettes “an addictive product that requires much closer scrutiny by the FDA.”
The primary findings from The National Academies include:
- “Substantial evidence that nicotine intake from e-cigarettes among experienced adult e-cigarette users can be comparable to that from conventional cigarettes.”
- “Conclusive evidence that in addition to nicotine, most e-cigarettes contain and emit numerous potentially toxic substances.”
- “No available evidence whether or not e-cigarette use is associated with intermediate cancer endpoints in humans.”
- “No available evidence whether or not e-cigarettes cause respiratory diseases in humans.”
- “No available evidence whether or not e-cigarettes affect pregnancy outcomes.”
The full report is available on The National Academies website.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.