This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s health section on May 8, 2013.
There are a lot of public health questions surrounding the use of e-cigarettes, but one thing is not in question – they are becoming a popular alternative to tobacco cigarettes. One in 5 smokers in the United States had tried e-cigarettes in 2011 – up from 1 in 10 in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
E-cigarettes, battery-powered devices that vaporize liquid nicotine so people can inhale it, began appearing in U.S. stores in 2007. They contain fewer hazardous chemicals than tobacco cigarettes but are so new that no long-term studies have been done to determine the health effects both for smokers and those who breathe in the vapors secondhand.
But nicotine, whether from a cigarette or an e-cigarette, is “a known addictive agent that is not helpful in any way,” said Dr. Daya Upadhyay, an assistant professor of pulmonary critical care at Stanford. So she says she encourages her patients to quit smoking entirely rather than switch to e-cigarettes. She added that e-cigarettes still contain toxic chemicals. “We can’t say yet whether it’s less harmful than tobacco,” she said.
It’s currently legal to smoke e-cigarettes indoors in many places – although some businesses and local governments, including Marin and Contra Costa counties, have banned them anywhere tobacco cigarettes are outlawed. The Legislature is considering a similar ban for California.
Companies do not market the product as a smoking cessation tool because that would put it in a category of products, like nicotine gum or patches, that the Food and Drug Administration regulates. But a British study out last month showed that 75 percent of the 1,400 e-cigarette users who responded to a survey said they’ve entirely replaced tobacco cigarettes with e-cigarettes.