Risks Assessed as E-Cigarettes Trend

By Ashton Eley
The Razorback Reporter

Click to Enlarge. Ashton Eley / Razorback Reporter

Click to Enlarge. Ashton Eley / Razorback Reporter

Electronic cigarettes are gaining popularity among teens and young adults, but little is known about long-term health effects of the marketed alternative to smoking, according to UA research.

About 6.6 percent of adolescents used electronic cigarettes, UA graduate researcher Monica Daniel said of a 2012 national survey. And the Dec. 16 report of a federally supported survey of more than 41,000 students in more than 370 schools around the country found that more teens use e-cigarettes than those who smoke tobacco cigarettes.

“The use of electronic cigarettes has more than doubled each year since they have been on the market,” said Daniel, who also is a teaching assistant for UA community health promotion.

E-cigarettes, which heat liquid nicotine to produce vapor, hit the U.S. market around 2007 and originally were marketed as a smoking-cessation device.

Daniel’s research focuses on looking at the attitudes of adolescents toward both electronic and traditional cigarettes, she said. She is concerned that recent changes in marketing and design target a younger audience and that the device could become a starter product for adolescents.

“Now it is kind of trendy,” Daniel said. “Studies now show that predominantly those under 30 are more likely to have tried electronic cigarettes. This young crowd calls it ‘vaping’ instead of smoking, and that is where my study came in that primarily looks at the attitudes of adolescents.

“My worry is that we are going to see youth who are starting electronic cigarettes as opposed to conventional cigarettes, but then going to conventional cigarettes for a better buzz or whatever reason.”

Down in Smoke

Brittany Brinza, a junior in fine arts, does think that electronic cigarettes, also called e-cigarettes, have become a trend, but she said they helped many people she knows to stop using tobacco products.

“It is becoming popularized, but I think wholeheartedly that it is something that is going to become a replacement for traditional cigarettes,” Brinza said. “People who have been smoking for 40-plus years, like my loved ones, have quit. I think e-cigarettes are something to help.”

Daniel’s research involved asking adolescents if they were more or less likely to use e-cigarettes based on whether they thought e-cigarettes to be equally, less or more harmful than tobacco cigarettes.

“If adolescents believed they were equally as harmful as a conventional cigarette then they were less likely to use, but if they thought it was less harmful, which most did, they were more likely to use an electronic cigarette,” she said.

The greatest health concern, Daniel said, is that not enough is known about them to definitively say that they carry health risks. Because the device is relatively new, no conclusive long-term studies exist on the effects of e-cigarettes, she said.

“It is to me like getting involved with cigarettes in the 1950s,” Daniel said. “Some people say we are going to have to wait 50 years to see what those health risks are, and I do not personally like that because I believe in prevention instead of waiting for something to happen and telling you why it went wrong.”

In 2011, a federal court ruled that e-cigarettes are not tobacco products and would not be regulated as such. No federal regulations on e-cigarettes have been passed since.

“Our government usually takes the stance that if we know something could be potentially harmful – especially harmful to children – we do not allow it until we know that it is safe,” Daniel said. “We saw this with ‘orbs,’ which were a mint-like substance of nicotine. A 3-year-old ingested some and was taken to the hospital for poison control. The government said these are harmful; we are going to take it off the market.”

Call for Regulation

Daniel thinks that e-cigarettes do pose some danger and need to be regulated, she said.

“They pose different health risks than conventional cigarettes, but studies are beginning to show that there are some chemicals that could be potentially harmful,” Daniel said. “Also, the liquid form of nicotine is dangerous. A child who didn’t know about the harmful effects might drink it or spill it on themselves and that could end in a fatal accident.”

In 2012, only 22 states had laws barring youths’ access to e-cigarettes. At the end of November, 41 states now had such laws, including Arkansas, according to state records.

Arkansas law allows people to “vape” — a coinage for smoking e-cigarettes — even in places that the state’s Clean Air law prohibits smoking. It is up to individual businesses to state whether vaping is allowed on their property, Daniel said.

“Primarily you will see our businesses be smoke free, but electronic cigarettes do not fall under that, unless that business itself has a policy,” Daniel said. “Even hospitals have to state whether they allow electronic cigarettes or not.

“The University of Arkansas does treat electronic cigarettes equivalent to cigarettes, and the use of both is prohibited,” she said.

In April, the federal Food and Drug Administration proposed regulations for e-cigarettes, including banning sales to minors and requiring health warning labels, as well as approving new products. A final ruling has not been made. If the regulations are adopted, the FDA would approve products but not immediately ban flavors or styles of e-cigarettes or limit marketing, according to an FDA release.

Ingredients Often Posted

Many e-cigarette companies already post ingredients, and they vouch for safety. Companies no longer market e-cigarettes as a cessation device, avoiding the thorough testing that is required to receive FDA drug and device approval.

“They are electronic, alternative smoking devices that simulate the sensation of smoking,” Craig Youngblood, president of the e-cigarette company inLife said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They do not expose the user or others to harmful levels of cancer-causing agents and other dangerous chemicals normally associated with traditional tobacco products.”

E-cigarette companies are not marketing their product for smoking-cessation, but many consumers are doing it for them. Hundreds of YouTube tutorials not only demonstrate how to use vaping devices but also describe them as a healthy alternative to smoking.

Celebrities also have jumped on the vaping bandwagon. Katherine Heigl — known for her roles in the TV shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “State of Affairs” — told talk show host David Letterman, “I do the electronic cigarette now. … It’s not bad for you,” as she inhaled one on the broadcast.

Brinza attributes the trend to the hipster cultural movement and that vaping is a safer alternative to something that is seen as cool and retro.

“I have gone to a number of local vape shops and it almost feels like a hipster retail store,” she said.

With reportedly fewer chemicals than traditional cigarettes, the nicotine seems more potent to many, Daniel said.

Brinza and her friends have lowered their nicotine intake, she said.

“Nicotine is addictive. But I have seen people lowering their nicotine intake, because the same amount just feels stronger with e-cigarettes,” she said. “Most people I know get the lower grades, essentially half of the nicotine they used to take in with cigarettes.”

In the midst of inconclusive information on the health effects of vaping, Brinza said she mostly relies on how the e-cigarettes make her feel.

“I am always interested in learning more. I am really doubtful that there is anything harmful with them that is not easily avoidable,” she said. “When you smoke cigarettes you feel like your body is a lot heavier although you still end up getting that sort of high. It is interesting how as you vape, it just feels healthier. It’s a lot better than inhaling tar and all those other things.”