Published on November 19, 2015

Do e-cigarettes help you quit smoking?Do e-cigarettes help you quit smoking?

If you think switching to an electronic cigarette is a safe way to give up smoking, you may want to hear what experts say about it.

“Some patients use them to quit smoking, but a lot of times you are swapping addictions,” said cardiologist Claude-Laurent Sader, MD, of the Heart and Vascular Institute of Cape Cod Healthcare. “I don’t think that they are that efficient in smoking cessation.”

Smoking cessation methods like a nicotine patch or nicotine gum are a better choice that inhaling anything into your lungs, he added.

The verdict is still out on whether vaping is less harmful than lighting up a real cigarette, and doctors are divided over the health implications of e-cigarettes.

While some may think vaping is better than cigarettes because cigarettes contain over 600 ingredients, according to the American Lung Association. When burned, they release more than 7,000 chemicals into the body. At least 69 of those chemicals are known to cause cancer. There are only about five ingredients in e-cigarettes.

Other health professionals say that since the e-cigarettes contain nicotine, they can be a pathway drug to smoking. Research is showing this to be true – especially with adolescents.

“We’re seeing a lot of young people doing this,” said John Mendelsohn, MD, an emergency room physician and toxicology expert at Falmouth Hospital. “What’s happening is when young people use e-cigarettes they are becoming addicted to nicotine. So now you have a group of people who are more likely to move on to regular cigarettes.”

His concern mirrors that of public health officials that the rise in the use of electronic cigarettes can act as a gateway to the use of traditional tobacco products like cigarettes. A California study of 40,000 middle school and high school students across the country indicated that vaping nicotine does in fact lead a majority of teenagers to pick up the real product.

In Dr. Mendelsohn’s opinion, e-cigarettes are not safe at all.

“You have to remember that nicotine was originally used in agriculture as a pesticide,” he said. “The other issue that has come up is the vehicle that is being used. You get the nicotine liquid, but it’s not all nicotine. The vehicle is polyetholene glycol and a couple of other things that metabolize as formaldehyde. There is a lot of concern about the effects of inhaling formaldehyde repeatedly.”

The more you use these products, the worse they are for you, Dr. Mendelsohn explained. New smokers tend to inhale less deeply, but the longer people smoke, the deeper they inhale.

“When they inhale more deeply the formaldehyde can get into the deeper part of the lungs and cause potentially more toxic effects,” he said. “Formaldehyde is present in cigarettes as well, but it’s felt that the exposure of formaldehyde in the e-cigarette compared to a regular cigarette has probably a five times greater risk of toxicity.”

A look at the dangers of inhaling formaldehyde published in The New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year included two studies that showed that the risk of developing cancer from long-term vaping is five times as high as that of smoking a pack of regular cigarettes a day. The second study suggested the risk was 15 times higher.

The bottom line is that the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t issued any guidelines on e-cigarettes, or “vaping,” as it is called, and there are so many mixed messages on the topic of the safety of these products – even in the medical field – that it’s hard for the general public to keep up.

As this year’s American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout takes place this Thursday, researchers are looking into just how much and why people are turning to e-cigarettes.

A recent analysis on adult tobacco use led by Rutgers School of Public Health indicated that former smokers are four times more likely to use e-cigarettes daily than current smokers of tobacco – and the figures just get more twisted from there.

For a study earlier this year by Reuters, researchers polled 5,679 adults in the U.S. and found that about 10 percent of those polled now vape. The number rose to 15 percent for poll participants under the age of 40.

The study showed that almost 70 percent of e-cigarette users started in the past year and about three quarters of them also still smoke cigarettes.

Another aspect of e-cigarettes that has a lot of healthcare providers like Dr. Mendelsohn concerned is that tobacco industries are on board. From a pure business standpoint, that indicates that they don’t see e-cigarettes as a threat to their base of smokers.

“Remember Big Tobacco?” questions Dr. Mendelsohn. “Now there is Big Vape. You have to keep in mind that a lot of the information is coming from the companies that sell these products.”