Parenting 101

What are e-Cigarettes, Anyway?

By J. Gary Wheeler, MD
Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program, Arkansas Department of Health

Most people have heard about e-cigarettes, but few people understand what they are and fewer know about the hazards.

E-cigarettes are part of a group of products called ENDS (electronic nicotine delivery systems). This broader term includes e-cigars, e-hookah and e-pipes. The common thread is that they all are used to deliver nicotine to the lungs. Nicotine is derived from tobacco leaves and has been deemed by federal courts as a tobacco product. ENDS work by heating a liquid (a chemical liquid, nicotine and flavorings) until the fluid turns to smoke and is inhaled. Some of these products are manufactured. Other products have "tanks" and are purchased in "vape" shops where custom fluids are mixed and sold.

These e-cigarettes and related products are being advertised to smokers and non-smokers, including kids. The advertising features kid-friendly names and flavors and also includes sexual themes. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that more than a ¼ million teens in the U.S. who did not currently use other tobacco products had tried e-cigarettes.

What are the pros and cons of e-cigarettes? The Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization have published warnings about e-cigarettes. Even the tobacco companies who make e-cigarettes are now voluntarily putting warning labels on these products.

Still, many groups claim that e-cigarettes are safe and help people quit smoking. To date, neither of these claims has been proven. In fact, we know that e-cigarettes produce nicotine, carcinogens, irritating chemicals and small particles that cause poor function of the lungs. We can measure some of these compounds in the blood of people who have been in rooms where people use e-cigarettes. It is true that we don't know how much disease they will produce in the lifetime of a user because they have not been around very long. Regarding quitting, multiple studies show inconsistent results. Some even show people trying to quit are less successful when using e-cigarettes compared to those who don't.

Parents should be aware of three particular hazards. First, the liquid solutions sold in "vape" shops are highly potent and if ingested by a toddler, could be fatal. Most do not have child-proof caps. Secondly, the devices sold in these stores or on the internet can be used to deliver liquid marijuana, cocaine, meth or other drugs. A third issue is that teens are particularly susceptible to nicotine addiction. Once hooked, users take up other tobacco products whose harms are well established.

Bottom line: talk to your kids and tell them the truth about e-cigarettes.