The popularity of e-cigarettes is fraught with controversy. On the one hand, manufacturers and fans say these devices pose less health risks because tobacco is cut out of the equation. On the other hand, some health experts think e-cigarettes could backfire in reducing a smoker’s motivation to quit. People on the latter camp also cite unknown health concerns of e-cigarettes even if tobacco isn’t present.
Perhaps the controversy will be fueled even more with a new study that finds e-cigarettes may have helped 18,000 long-term smokers quit. This finding appears to suggest the benefits of e-cigarettes may outweigh its potential risks, at least in the short-term.
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E-cigarettes (e-cigs) work via a battery-operated vaporizer that aerosolizes the “e-liquid” in place of burning actual tobacco. Thus, the act of smoking is often termed “vaping.” These devices are often promoted as equally enjoyable but less harmful to the lungs than firsthand or secondhand smoking of actual tobacco products.
And consumers aren’t shy to try these devices. Just among youths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that use of e-cigs among middle and high school students had tripled in 2015. Data from the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey showed that the numbers jumped from 660,000 high school students in 2013 to 2 million in 2014.
But do e-cigs actually benefit users? To answer this question, researchers from the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom looked at a trove of smoking-related data from the Smoking Toolkit Study and the National Health Service. They found that in 2015, e-cigs were linked to about 18,000 people quitting their smoking habits.
"E-cigarettes can play a role in helping people quit and the evidence so far shows e-cigarettes are much safer than tobacco," said Alison Cox, director of cancer prevention at Cancer Research UK. "This study shows the positive impact they've had on helping people give up the deadly addiction."
But critics are quick to point out that this number is not actually that great, considering that in 2015, more than 1.1 billion people smoked tobacco. In defense, the authors maintain that the figure is "clinically significant because of the huge health gains from stopping smoking." One measure of benefit is the extension of life from quitting smoking – a 40-year-old smoker could potentially live 9 years longer after having quit smoking as compare to continued smoking.
Still, the link remains somewhat weak. For example, we don’t know if the 18,000 people who quit smoking in 2015 will continue to abstain from smoking in the long run. Furthermore, vaping e-cigs is not without health consequences. Among additives, flavoring components and nicotine, the e-liquid also contains formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Cells exposed to e-cig vapors have been shown to have more DNA instability resulting in increased cell death.
Given these uncertainties, do the benefits of switching to e-cigs still hold up? Questions like these will most likely require more studies conducted over longer periods of time. However, it seems safe to conclude that people who don’t smoke or vape shouldn’t start. But perhaps those who do smoke may fare better, at least in the short-term, if they switch to e-cigs.
Additional sources: UCL press release, World Health Organization, MNT