Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you know about e-cigarettes. These are devices which deliver a nicotine dose using a battery-heated element which vaporizes propylene glycol, polyethylene glycol, vegetable glycerin (mostly) and/or some other vehicles in which the nicotine has been dissolved.
These devices appeal to users as cessation aids to help quit smoking tobacco and as a safer alternative to cigarettes.
They also appeal to adolescents, apparently.
You will hear the occasional grand pronouncement hit the media circu
sit with more assertions than questions leaving people wondering.
Here is my general take on just about anything having to do with e-cigarettes: We don't really know and we need to do some more science to figure it out.
So here are the key questions all amenable to research, some of which is no doubt ongoing.
Do e-cigs help people quit smoking? The question is, in my view, do they do any better than cold turkey (accounting for subpopulations) and are they as effective or better than any other replacement therapy like the gum or patch.
Do e-cigs prolong nicotine use in individuals who would otherwise have quit smoking cigarettes? Very tricky question, this one. But if you have an individual who would have quit smoking but keeps using nicotine via e-cig, you've increased harm.
Do e-cigs cause novel harms? In other words, presumably the nicotine harm is the same (once individuals learn how to get their desired nicotine dose from these). But are there constituents of the vehicles, the flavorants or products created by the vaporization process that cause health risks? And no, just showing an ingredient is present is not evidence of harm. We need careful toxicology studies with relevant exposure doses and regimens.
Do e-cigs prevent well-established harms? The chronic smoking of tobacco, typically via the modern cigarette products, has very well established and very bad health consequences. Nicotine exposure is the cause of only a subset of the harms, even if it is the thing responsible for continued use. So getting combusted tobacco smoke exposure out of the situation cannot help but be a huge win. Huge. I don't see how this can really be argued until and unless we find some whopping big harms of the vapor exposure.
Do e-cigs addict new individuals to nicotine? One of the big fears of those concerned with e-cigs is that early data show that adolescents are more likely to try e-cigs than to try smoking cigarettes. There will be some work showing that daily nicotine users started off with e-cigs rather than tobacco cigarettes but as you know, it is impossible to establish causality with real human populations. The best we have, overwhelmingly likely causal relationships, has to wait on a whole lot of data. Which we won't have for many years.
Are e-cigs used without nicotine or other psychoactive? One parent I know has asserted that perhaps some adolescents are using e-cig devices with just the flavored vehicles and not to ingest nicotine or any other drug. Obviously this goes back to the above question about harms from the vehicle. But it also links to another concern...
Are e-cigs used to deliver other psychoactive drugs? The devices are very readily and broadly available. They are being used with crude marijuana extracts for certain sure. There have been media allegations that they are being used to ingest "flakka" (here, here, here). For a time, one assumes that by pretending to be smoking nicotine or the flavorant (see above) peope will be able to stroll about ingesting illegal substances in public view. Including adolescents, my friends. Yes, kids.