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Effects of E-Cigarettes: Is Vaping Healthier than Smoking Cigarettes?

Dear Your Teen:

Are the effects of e-cigarettes less damaging than regular cigarettes? Should I encourage my teenager who smokes cigarettes to use e-cigarettes instead? Can e-cigarettes help quit smoking?

EXPERT | Linda Richter, Ph.D.

E-cigarettes appear to be less harmful than conventional cigarettes because they do not have tobacco. However, there is no evidence that they are, in fact, safe, especially for teens. A growing body of research suggests that the effects of e-cigarettes may lead to negative health consequences. Also, e-cigarettes may increase the risk of cigarette smoking and interfere with successful smoking cessation among those who already smoke.

Recommending e-cigarettes or any product that contains nicotine to someone who smokes cigarettes is not the best solution. Rather, encouraging cessation from all tobacco and nicotine products is the safest approach. Here are some important reasons why:

Effects Of E-Cigarettes

E-cigarettes are not an approved cessation product for quitting smoking.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a variety of smoking cessation products determined to be safe and effective. These include certain prescription medicines as well as over-the-counter (OTC) nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products such as skin patches, lozenges, and gum. When used in conjunction with professional counseling, these cessation methods are highly effective.

E-cigarettes have not been approved by the FDA for smoking cessation. They have been examined by researchers as potential aids for cigarette smoking cessation, and have been promoted in this way by their manufacturers. However, the research evidence on the effectiveness of using e-cigarettes to quit smoking is not strong. In fact, a growing body of research shows that people who use e-cigarettes who never smoked before are more likely to start smoking. And those who already smoke may actually be less likely to quit if they use e-cigarettes. That’s because e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which perpetuates the addiction, and most smokers who use e-cigarettes end up using both products—increasing their nicotine intake.

E-cigarettes may be safer than cigarettes, but they are not safe.

Because they are not regulated or tested by the federal government, it is difficult to determine the contents of e-cigarette liquids, which contain chemicals that pose a danger to the user’s health. The aerosol produced when using e-cigarettes contains various toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and ultrafine particles, all of which pose a risk to an individual’s cardiac and respiratory health. Although e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes, the common perception that these devices are safe is false—they do pose a risk to your health.

E-cigarettes contain nicotine just like regular cigarettes. Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical. The younger you are when you try it, the more likely you are to become addicted, because adolescents’ brains are not fully developed until they reach their mid-20’s. This makes them more vulnerable to addiction than adults. Nicotine can also disrupt brain development, interfering with long-term cognitive functioning (decreasing attention and increasing impulsivity). It can also increase the risk of developing addiction to other drugs and various mental and physical health problems later in life. The bottom line? Nicotine is a highly potent and addictive substance that is especially bad for the developing teen brain. This is true regardless of the form it comes in—in an e-cigarette or traditional cigarette.

Some teens use nicotine vaping devices to smoke marijuana or hash oil and not just nicotine liquids.

The vaporized marijuana smoke has little smell, which makes it hard to detect whether the user is inhaling nicotine or other drugs.

Negative health consequences include:
  • Harmful effects of e-cigarettes on the nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems
  • Nicotine-related dental damage
  • Cancerous tumor development
  • Poor reproductive health outcomes, like preterm deliveries and stillbirths
  • Adverse effects on brain and lung development if exposure occurs during fetal development or adolescence
  • Addiction

We need more research to measure the risks associated with e-cigarette use, and their harm relative to regular cigarettes. However, enough data has been generated to show that they pose some risk of harm, especially for youth.

To help your child quit smoking, we recommend talking with his or her doctor about smoking cessation interventions. These options include counseling or FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapies and medications that are safe and effective for teens. For more information about helping your teen quit smoking, see the National Cancer Institute’s website.

Linda Richter is the director of policy research and analysis for The Center on Addiction

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