E-Cigarette Controversy: Are They Safe?

October 29, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
A new electronic product paints itself as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes and possibly, a way to quit. Doctors say electronic cigarettes are mysterious and probably dangerous.After more than 25 years addicted to cigarettes, Jeff McVay feels what he's putting to his mouth now is his chance to quit. "This is the best thing I've tried and I've tried everything," he said.

McVay is smoking an electronic cigarette, a battery-powered lookalike that delivers nicotine, but doesn't produce any smoke -- on the inhale, or the exhale. "It feels just like smoking a cigarette," he said.

They look like cigarettes, but e-cigarettes come in three pieces -- the cartridge that looks like a filter, the vaporizer, and the battery with a fake ash at the end.

McVay buys them at the pilot truck stop just off Highway 99 in Madera, but the easiest place to find them is on the internet.

We talked via Skype with a lobbyist for the e-cigarette industry. They promote the product as a no tobacco, no secondhand smoke, less dangerous substitute that smokers can use in places where cigarettes are not allowed.

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"It's a good thing for them to have an alternative that does not have carbon monoxide, that does not have arsenic, that does not have tar," said Electronic Cigarette Association president Matt Salmon.

They also play up the cool factor in internet commercials, and highlight celebrities using them, like Leonardo Dicaprio on his bike. But doctors aren't buying what the industry is peddling.

"No one quite knows what's in them," said Dr. Michael Peterson, the chief of internal medicine at UCSF Fresno. "They haven't been tested. Some of the ingredients that have been found in them we know can be injurious."

The Food and Drug Administration had scientists study e-cigarettes. Their report says the vapor coming from e-cigarettes includes byproducts that are known carcinogens and toxic compounds. One of them is diethylene glycol, which is an ingredient typically found in antifreeze. So when you're smoking e-cigarettes, you may be inhaling antifreeze.

The FDA is moving to limit access to them, but the industry denies the test results are definitive and because of a lawsuit, right now, the devices are completely unregulated.

The industry says that doesn't mean e-cigarettes are dangerous. In fact, they say their product could save lives by helping people to stop smoking, and thousands of people are convinced they're right.

"I mean, the way I look at it, it can't be worse than smoking regular cigarettes," said McVay. Doctors say whether that's true is still a mystery and there are proven nicotine substitutes, like the patch or gum.

Many believe the industry's goals are more diabolical, especially when they see e-cigarettes sold at kiosks in malls, and in flavors like vanilla, cherry, chocolate and strawberry.

"We don't make candy electronic cigarettes to help people quit smoking," said Dr. Peterson. "This is clearly an attempt to addict children."

The industry denies marketing to children, and they support some laws controlling who has access to e-cigarettes.

"We believe banning the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under the legal smoking age is a really smart thing to do," said Salmon.

They also point out that the $50 cost of an e-cigarette starter kit is a big hurdle most kids can't jump.

Meanwhile, half a million Americans like McVay are hoping e-cigarettes get them over one of the biggest hurdles of their lives -- ending lifelong addictions to cigarettes.

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