E-cigarettes put up smokescreen, must be snuffed out

By Daniel M. Cook

Special thanks to the Las Vegas Review Journal

The Review-Journal’s June 21 editorial (“E-cigarettes and teen smoking”) concludes by asking, “If this business (e-cigarettes) is furthering the goal of reducing cigarette smoking, shouldn’t government and health advocates leave it alone?”

The answer is a simple and emphatic “no.”

E-cigarettes and other electronic smoking devices have created a new environment, one without accountability and oversight so far. While efforts are ongoing to make sense of this in a responsible way, there is still much to be determined — for manufacturers, regulators, health care providers, public health advocates and consumers.

Unfortunately, a situation such as this, when a new product comes to market, often leads to unsubstantiated assumptions, half-truths or other inaccuracies.

E-cigarette use is trending in much the same way cigarettes and other tobacco products did before the health risks of smoking became public. E-cigarette manufacturers, of which Big Tobacco companies make up an increasing share, glamorize their products as fashionable, safe alternatives to smoking tobacco.

This claim is suspect at best, disingenuous at worst. For example, e-cigarette manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the ingredients contained in their products. Consumers are left to trust an industry that has been anything but trustworthy.

More important, published studies don’t support these products as safe.

The editorial stated that “because e-cigarettes don’t burn tobacco, users do not inhale the tar and carbon monoxide that come with conventional cigarettes,” and “e-cigarettes don’t produce secondhand smoke.” While true at face value, they do not tell the whole story.

E-cigarettes produce and emit an aerosol, not a vapor, as many misleadingly refer to it. Samples tested by the Food and Drug Administration found detectable levels of at least 10 known cancer-causing agents and other toxic chemicals, including diethylene glycol, which is commonly found in anti-freeze, and formaldehyde.

In addition, studies found ultrafine particles at concentrated levels higher than in tobacco cigarettes. Ultrafine particles can exacerbate respiratory ailments such as asthma and can constrict arteries.

Clearly, there are health risks posed by e-cigarette use, to those who use them and those exposed to the aerosol they emit. What has yet to be determined is the degree and extent of those health risks.

The notion that e-cigarettes help smokers “quit cigarettes entirely” is just that — a notion, unsupported by anything more than anecdotal stories. Even Consumer Reports, as part of its “Bottom Line” on e-cigarettes in its March 2014 issue, concludes that it’s better to stick with proven methods such as nicotine gum, patches and counseling.

The value — or lack thereof — of e-cigarettes as a tobacco cessation aid is underscored by the fact the FDA did not approve e-cigarettes as a tobacco cessation aid and has begun the process to regulate them as tobacco products under the Tobacco Control Act.

As for teens and smoking, what is particularly troubling is how e-cigarettes are heavily marketed to teens and other minors, with flavors such as bubble gum and cotton candy, with easy access to these products regardless of age. This is consistent with Big Tobacco’s past marketing practices — get them hooked when they’re young, and they’ll be customers for life because of the highly addictive nature of nicotine.

The recent decision by the Clark County School District Board of Trustees to prohibit the use of any electronic smoking device on school district campuses rightly recognizes its students are susceptible to these marketing practices and the burden of nicotine addiction.

Currently, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas does not allow e-cigarettes on campus. The University of Nevada, Reno, plans to implement a tobacco-free policy on its campus in 2015 that will also prohibit electronic smoking devices.

The editorial’s conclusion that the “ban-everything crowd” should stay out of the e-cigarette debate because the industry is “furthering the goal of reducing cigarette smoking” is irresponsible.

What we do know about e-cigarettes should be a red flag to everyone concerned. What we know about addiction, and nicotine addiction in particular, should be the strongest warning. Addiction of any kind often comes with serious consequences, financial and otherwise, to those addicted and the people around them.

Identifying one product as preferable to another when fueling one’s addiction is like telling an alcoholic it’s OK to drink beer or wine instead of hard liquor. The end result is still an addict. Which, if history has taught us anything, is what the industry is counting on.

Daniel M. Cook is president of the Nevada Public Health Association.

Posted on 08/05/2014 in E-cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products