E-cigs may be cleaner, but not necessarily safer

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First Posted: 2/17/2014

Actress Jenny McCarthy uses them. So does actor Stephen Dorff. They come in flavors such as cherry crush, peach schnapps, chocolate, and pina colada. They have no lung-polluting tar.

So electronic cigarettes must be safe, right?

That depends on whom you ask.

If it’s Deborah Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, the story behind electronic cigarettes isn’t all that rosy.

“No brand has been submitted for evaluation of their safety,” Brown said. “In some initial lab tests in 2009, the (Food and Drug Administration) did find some detectable levels of toxic, cancer-causing chemicals, including an ingredient used in anti-freeze.”

Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, e-cigs, vapor cigarettes, or vapes, are battery-operated products designed to deliver nicotine, flavor, and other chemicals. They turn chemicals, including highly addictive nicotine, into an aerosol that is inhaled by the user, according to the FDA.

Their manufacturers tout e-cigs as superior to tobacco cigarettes because they produce no tobacco smoke, no ash, and no smell. A battery-powered atomizer is used to create the vapor. Starter kits can cost anywhere from about $40 to $100.

Disposable cartridges, available in various flavors, are attached to the devices and contain chemicals that are inhaled and exhaled as vapor. Each cartridge delivers about 250 or 350 puffs, and a pack of five costs about $12 to $15. The cartridges can deliver nicotine at varying levels, from 6 to 8 mg up to 13 to 16 mg, or none at all.

One of the most popular brands, blu, which hired McCarthy and Dorff as spokespeople, has a warning on its website stating that the product contains nicotine, “a chemical known to the state of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

And while the company also states on its website that e-cigs are not for sale to minors, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that use of e-cigarettes among youth doubled from 2011 to 2012, the American Lung Association says.

The association claims the e-cigarette industry is using marketing tactics of the tobacco industry by using celebrity spokespeople to glamorize its products, making unproven health claims, encouraging smokers to switch instead of quit, and creating candy- and fruit-flavored products to attract youth.

And, Brown says, there is no federal oversight of these products. “The FDA announced in 2011 that they would be regulated as tobacco products are. We’re waiting for the Obama administration and the FDA to move forward in overseeing the products and determining the public health impacts of their use,” she said.

“We are faced with a deep-pocketed, ever-evolving tobacco industry that’s determined to maintain its market share at the expense of our kids and current smokers,” Brown continued.

The American Lung Association’s 2014 State of Tobacco Control report assigns letter grades ranging from A through F to the federal and state governments showing how well tobacco-control laws are protecting citizens from the toll tobacco use takes on lives and the economy.

Pennsylvania scored Fs when it comes to funding tobacco prevention and control, as well as requiring smoking-cessation coverage in private health insurance policies. The state received Cs in the smoke-free air and cigarette-tax categories.

The grades should come as no big shock, given that The Daily Beast news website ranked the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Metropolitan Area second-worst in the nation for people who smoke cigarettes, as The Times Leader reported in 2011.