A spirited defence of e-cigarettes

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Lately, I’ve been posting a lot of negative stories about e-cigarettes and recent studies showing the vapour in e-cigs may not be as benign as c-cig companies would have you believe.

Here’s a column defending e-cigarettes from Helen Redmond, who’s written for Al Jazeera and AlterNet, defending e-cigs as a tool to help smokers quit. I thought it was pretty interesting, and to be fair, I thought it was worth writing about to get the other side of the e-cigarette argument.

In her column, Redmond writes:

Public health organizations and federal drug agencies including the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) argue—despite no adequate evidence—that vaping is a “gateway” to tobacco for youth and that “e-cigarettes are no better than smoking regular cigarettes.” Numerous articles and well-respected, anti-smoking groups refer to e-cigarettes as “tobacco products,” which they clearly are not. The American Lung Association’s website contains a statement that declares: “Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are a popular new tobacco product that have still largely unknown public and individual health effects.” The word “scourge” is usually reserved for heroin panics, but it’s being used to describe electronic cigarettes. Michael Seilback, a vice president of the American Lung Association, said in a press release: “The scourge of e-cigarettes in New York has warranted action and Governor Cuomo’s proposal comprehensively tackles the proliferation of e-cigarettes in New York.”

But you know what the real scourge is?

The real scourge is that 480,000 people die in the United States from smoking-related illnesses every year. And electronic cigarettes—which are the best hope for hundreds of thousands of inveterate smokers to quit and stay alive, and which cause a tiny fraction of the harms of real cigarettes—are subject to a vicious and unrelenting campaign of lies and deception to convince smokers not to use them.

Are the enemies of vaping so implacably and irrationally opposed to it that they prefer smokers die rather than switch to e-cigarettes?

Redmond cites a study done last year in the UK that states e-cigs are about 95 percent safer than tobacco cigarettes  and she also cites some statistics about e-cigarettes helping smokers quit.

She writes:

Electronic cigarettes help smokers quit. That’s why millions of people are using them. The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association (CASAA) conducted a survey in 2015 of 19,823 its members; 87% reported they quit smoking entirely after starting to vape. In response to an article in Consumer Reports that rejected recommending the use of ECs, more than 1,300 readers responded saying that electronic cigarettes helped them kick the habit. And according to a new study published in the journal Addiction, using ECs led to an estimated 22,000 more people quitting tobacco every year. The researchers found: “E-cigarettes appear to be helping a significant number of smokers to stop who would not have done otherwise—not as many as some e-cigarette enthusiasts claim, but a substantial number nonetheless.”

Redmond also points out that nicotine by itself is not the chief toxin in cigarettes (many people don’t realize that nicotine is not the cause of lung cancer or COPD caused by cigarettes). But, she does concede that nicotine is physically addictive, but she argues that it can be used as a maintenance medication much like methadone.

Redmond’s column got a lot of positive feedback from e-cig users thanking her. I’ve learned not to waste a lot of energy fighting with e-cig supporters; their support gets a little too fanatical for me to deal with, and if e-cigs have genuinely gotten you off cigarettes, then I don’t blame you for loving them.

However, I would take two issues with Redmond’s column. First of all, I think it completely glossed over the growing problem of teens using e-cigs and the oftentime pretty blatant marketing of e-cigarettes to kids, using images of race car drivers and women’s panties to make e-cigs appear sophisticated and sexy. The use of e-cigarettes by teens has tripled over the past three years. This IS a serious issue and to me the biggest problem with e-cigs.

These are not 20- or 30-year smokers desperate to get off of cigarettes. These are 15- and 16-year-olds who have found a new, cheap and easy to purchase online delivery system to get physically addicted to nicotine to begin with. While nicotine is not the most dangerous component of cigarettes, it is incredibly addictive and I would just as soon kids not get addicted to it in any form. Nicotine addiction by its basic definition is a bad thing. There is nothing good that will come out of nicotine addiction, no matter the delivery system. And studies have shown that kids who start off using e-cigs do move on to cigarettes more than kids who never use them.

Secondly, I also think Redmond seriously overstates the effectiveness of e-cigs in getting people off cigarettes. Despite the anecdotal evidence you will read all over the Internet, they are not some kind of miracle cure. Simply put, they don’t work for everyone. I have also talked to a number of people who have told me they didn’t do anything for them. She cites statistics about people quitting smoking thanks to e-cigs, and I don’t question the numbers she quotes, but I can also cite studies stating they are not especially effective in helping people quit cigarettes. Here is another study on that same point. What data that is out there is mixed at best.

E-cigs definitely work for some people. For people who have tried cold turkey or patches and failed to quit, go ahead and try e-cigs, you have nothing to lose. But, please don’t sell them as some of miracle cure for cigarettes. They don’t even come close to being that. They are just another nicotine replacement system that people can try when all else has failed.

In all seriousness, for every person who at times with a certain level of fanaticism tells me that e-cigs have been a lifesaver, I would love to go back to those same people in a year or two and ask them if they are still off cigarettes.  I think it’d be interesting to see.

So, e-cigs are going to continue to be controversial. I’ve made my position clear that if adults want to use them to quit smoking, they should be available and they apparently really do help some people; I don’t care if they’re not 100 percent successful, if they help some people, that’s great. But, the feds absolutely must crack down on the marketing to kids and sales of e-cig products to kid, including online sales.

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