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Vaping and E-Cigarettes

Closeup of man inhaling e-cigarette.

More and more people are lighting up with electronic cigarettes. Also called vaping, the use of e-cigarettes provides nicotine without all the smoke. But are they safer? This Q&A explains what’s known about e-cigarettes.

What are e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are also known as electronic nicotine delivery systems. These devices are often made to look like regular cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. They have 3 parts: a battery, a heating device, and a cartridge or tank. The part that heats up is called a vaporizer.

To use an e-cigarette, a person inserts a cartridge or fills the tank with a liquid solution. This liquid contains nicotine. It may also contain other chemicals and flavorings. When the e-cigarette is puffed, the vaporizer heats up. It turns the nicotine-containing liquid in the tank or cartridge into an aerosol. Users then breathe in this vapor. The act is called vaping.

Who is using e-cigarettes?

More and more people are puffing on e-cigarettes. Their use has doubled since they became available in 2007. Tobacco smokers are heavy users. So, too, are adolescents, particularly middle and high school students. In fact, e-cigarettes have become their most popular form tobacco product. Flavorings—such as coffee, mint, and fruit flavors—may tempt younger users to try these products.

Can e-cigarettes help smokers quit?

Proponents say that e-cigarettes may help smokers kick the habit. Their design and mode of nicotine delivery may make quitting easier. But ongoing research is mixed on how well they work as a smoking cessation aid. Some studies suggest they may help. Others show that smokers may be using both regular and e-cigarettes. They may choose an e-cigarette in places where other smoking products are banned.

Are they safer than traditional cigarettes?

On the surface, e-cigarettes may seem safer than other forms of smoking. Users don’t inhale burning tobacco and its many toxic byproducts. These include tar and other carcinogens. But they may still be exposing themselves to other harmful substances. The inhaled vapor may contain chemicals like formaldehyde. Flavorings may also hide possible toxins. It’s also unclear if the vapor puffed into the air puts nonsmokers at risk for health problems.

More research is needed to see if e-cigarettes are harmful. But it is clear that users are still taking in nicotine— a very addictive substance. At high doses, nicotine can cause dizziness and vomiting. Users who refill their own cartridges are especially at risk for unsafe levels of the drug. Even more concerning, young children have been poisoned after coming in contact with the nicotine-containing liquid. Teens who use e-cigarettes may become addicted to nicotine, which can harm their developing brain. They may also start smoking regular cigarettes.

E-cigarettes also have to have the potential to overheat and explode. This is mainly caused by overheating of the lithium batteries. This has caused serious skin burns.

Are there any laws against using e-cigarettes?

The FDA recently ruled to regulate e-cigarettes. They are considered a tobacco product. Makers of these devices have to follow certain rules on safety and advertising. They also can’t directly sell or market e-cigarettes to minors.

Online Medical Reviewer: Brown, Kim, APRN
Online Medical Reviewer: Images Reviewed by Staywell medical art team.
Online Medical Reviewer: Perez, Eric, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2017
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