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How Safe Are E-cigarettes?

Many people are wondering whether e-cigarettes--battery powered devices that heat liquid nicotine to create a vapor that is inhaled--are safe. But whether a product is safe can be very hard to define, even for the organizations charged with the job of doing so, such as the Federal Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization (WHO). In light of the controversy surrounding e-cigarettes, perhaps the better question to ask is: what is known about e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are marketed to a United States addicted to smoking; smoking has killed 20 million Americans in the past 50 years, making it the leading preventable cause of death in the country. Despite this fact, 6 million Americans still smoke--and because of this fact, the e-cigarette market potential is huge. The estimated revenue from 2013 sales was 2 billion; the projected revenue by 2017 is estimated at 10 billion. So far, there is no evidence to support the notion that e-cigarettes function effectively as a smoking cessation device, and manufacturers of them are not claiming that they do so or marketing them as such. E-cigarettes contain nicotine, just like their combustible counterparts, and nicotine is the addictive agent in both.

However, e-cigarettes do not contain the tar and other chemicals found in combustible cigarettes. Because these are the carcinogenic components of traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes which vaporize the nicotine are generally thought to be a safer alternative for those who cannot quit or who do not want to quit. Also, e-cigarettes are typically allowed in public places unlike their combustible counterparts. (Maybe not for long: the WHO has called for a ban on the use of e-cigarettes in public places, arguing that there may be health risks associated to the vapor emitted from them.

One of the risks of the perception of safety enjoyed by e-cigarettes is that young people feel there is no harm to using them. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 260,000 middle school and high school students tried e-cigarettes in 2013. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, Pediatrics, kids who tried e-cigarettes were an incredible six times more likely to take up smoking than those who didn't try them. Even if those using e-cigarettes don't end up smoking regular cigarettes, the nicotine found in e-cigarettes is just as addictive and just as harmful; studies show that early exposure of developing brains to nicotine can result in lasting deficits in cognitive function.

This spring the Federal Drug Administration proposed regulations pertaining to e-cigarettes, including restrictions on the sale to minors and the addition of health warnings on packaging. Critics argue that the regulations are too little too late. They want restrictions on advertising and marketing, and a ban on candy and fruit flavors aimed at creating young users. As the CEO of the Heart Association Nancy Brown put it bluntly: "we are fiercely committed to preventing the tobacco industry from addicting another generation of smokers."

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Thomas Law Firm
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