E-Cigarettes Side Effects: Safe & Effective or Bad & Dangerous to Your Health?

So you want to quit smoking and want to know if e-cigarettes can help you kick the deadly habit? Or do you want to help a loved one stop smoking?

Since the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement forced the four biggest American tobacco companies to compensate people with lung cancer and other ailments caused by smoking, awareness of the health hazards of smoking has grown by leaps and bounds.

The current global tobacco epidemic continues to claim nearly six million people each year, including five million smokers and ex-smokers and even more than 600,000 nonsmokers exposed to second-hand smoke.

But persistent anti-smoking campaigns launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other global public health authorities and nongovernment tobacco control groups over the past decades have made smoking an undesirable act and the smoker pariah: Studies show that around 70 percent of smokers want to smoke, but are addicted to nicotine.

Today there are many nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) available and backed up by health authorities, but e-cigarettes are particularly attractive to smokers because they look like cigarettes and deliver the same experience as smoking.

Not only—makers have deliberately marketed e-cigs as “the first health cigarette, free of harmful chemicals and tar typically found in tobacco products,” CNN Medical Producer Danielle Dellorto noted in a 2009 article. E-cigarette makers say the only ingredient of their product is “pure liquid nicotine.”

But in a September 2011 entry on the Harvard Medical School’s Health Blog, Dr. Harvey Simon warned, “despite the appeal of so-called e-cigarettes, we don’t know enough about their safety or effectiveness to give them the green light.”

In fact, both the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the WHO consider e-cigs an unapproved new drug because of a lack studies to prove that they are safe. Since 2009, both public health agencies have called for tighter regulate of the e-cigs, and today, the FDA works to halt the importation of the products but stops at seizing those already being sold within the U.S.

Generally, electronic cigarettes look like the real thing but some are made to look like pipes or cigars, and other products are even disguised as pens or other safe and socially acceptable items.

Technically, the WHO classifies e-cigarettes as “electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS)” that deliver nicotine and other substances but do not contain tobacco.

These smoking devices are marketed under a variety of brand names and descriptors, including ‘electronic cigarettes’, ‘ecigarro’, ‘electro-smoke’, ‘green cig’ and ‘smartsmoker’. First sold in the United States, Australia, Brazil, China, Europe, the Republic of Korea, their sale is spreading to virtually all countries as they are marketed on the Internet.

E-cigarettes are built around a battery-operated heating element, a replaceable cartridge that contains nicotine and other chemicals, and an atomizer that converts the chemicals into an inhalable vapor.

A study published last spring in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that electronic cigarettes may help smokers quit, according to Dr. Simon.

But preliminary studies from the FDA, WHO, New Zealand and Greece that raise doubts that e-cigarettes are a safe way to quit, he said.

WHO: not effective nicotine replacement
There are many reasons to worry about e-cigarettes.

For one, an analysis done by the FDA recorded nicotine doses of between 26.8 and 43.2 micrograms, although “the dose of nicotine delivered with each puff may vary substantially,” Dr. Simon said. It also detected nicotine in products labeled as nicotine free.

These doses are about a 30th of the nicotine levels in real cigarettes, which deliver from one to 2.5 milligrams of nicotine per cigarette.

The low doses of nicotine in e-cigarettes make them ineffective as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) devices, even as they are often marketed as such, WHO said.