What is an E-Cigarette and Are They Safe?

By Catherine M. Fascilla, D.D.S.

As e-cigarettes become more popular and accessible, a lot of people are asking, “What is an e-cigarette?”

It is an electronic cigarette, also called an e-cig or a smokeless cigarette that turns an oil-nicotine solution into vapor. The nicotine vapor produced looks, tastes and feels like cigarette smoke but is actually steam. The term vaping refers to the act of inhaling the vaporized nicotine produced by the electronic cigarettes as an alternative to inhaling the smoke produced by tobacco products.

Vaporizing began in Beijing, China in 2003 when a pharmacist by the name of Hon Lik invented e-cigarettes to help people quit smoking after his father died of lung cancer. E-cigarettes were introduced to the U.S market in 2007 and, while slow to catch on, they have been gaining popularity since 2011. With nearly 500 brands and thousands of flavors on the market, vaping has become a hot new trend with young smokers, especially among middle school and high school students.

While e-cigarettes are certainly less lethal than conventional cigarette smoking, they are by no means safe. In August of 2016, the FDA started to regulate e-cigarettes because of their potential health risks. Manufacturers are now required to register with the FDA. Their products are permitted to remain on the market for two years while the FDA evaluates them. Until then the consumer has no way of knowing what chemicals are in the liquid that is vaporized and inhaled.

According to the 2013 review by The Group to Alleviate Smoking Pollution, evidence shows e-cigarette liquids (e-liquids) contain 42 harmful chemicals that are known to be toxic or carcinogenic. Almost all e-cigs contain nicotine, even those that are labeled nicotine-free. Nicotine is a harmful addictive substance. Exposure to nicotine during pregnancy harms the developing fetus and causes lasting consequences for the developing brain and lungs in newborns. It can result in low birth weight, preterm delivery and stillbirth.

Nicotine also has a negative impact on adolescent brain development and use during adolescence and young adulthood has been associated with attention deficit disorder, behavioral impairments and poor impulse control. It may cause changes in the brain that increase the risk of addiction to other drugs.

Nicotine is a stimulant. It raises your heart rate and causes high blood pressure. Chronic exposure to nicotine may lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Nicotine is harmful to your teeth and gums. It contributes to gum disease. It inhibits saliva production increasing susceptibility to bacterial build up, dry mouth, tooth decay and bad breath. Since it is a stimulant, it increases tooth grinding. Because it is a vasoconstrictor, it reduces blood flow to the gums leading to gum recession.

The nicotine in e-liquid is a dangerous hazard to young children. Many e-liquids have candy and fruit flavoring and packaging that makes them attractive to kids. Poisoning from accidental ingestion have sky-rocketed.

Flavored e-cigarettes often contain a chemical compound called diacetyl which causes permanent damage to the bronchioles, the tiniest airways in the lungs. Other toxic chemicals in the vapors are benzene, known to cause leukemia, diethyl glycol, which affects the nervous system, lungs and heart and formaldehyde.

For people who are currently addicted to cigarettes, e-cigarettes provide a less dangerous nicotine source, without exposure to tar or most of the poisonous gases in the cigarette smoke. However, it is unclear if e-cigarettes can help a smoker quit smoking.

People who do not already smoke should avoid e-cigarettes. This is especially true for young people, as exposure of the developing brain to nicotine may impair brain development and predispose teenagers to addiction to other drugs.

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