E-Cigarettes: The Good, Bad & Ugly

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 5 cigarette smokers use e-cigarettes. But are they good or bad for you?

Instead of inhaling smoke as with regular cigarettes, users of e-cigarettes inhale vaporized liquid made up of a mixture of water and nicotine as well as other substances sometimes added for flavor and texture.

Since this vapor has a much lower content of carcinogens than traditional cigarettes, and since people tend to take fewer puffs on average (and thereby inhale less of the product), e-cigarettes seem to have a lower risk for both smokers and bystanders.

But this is only part of the picture, cautions Jock Lawrason, M.D., a pulmonologist and chief medical officer for Nantucket Cottage Hospital in Massachusetts. Once the vaporized nicotine is inhaled, it enters the bloodstream through the lungs and stimulates receptors in the brain to satisfy the ongoing need for nicotine.

“E-cigarettes don’t have the dangerous chemicals and irritants that we are exposed to from regular cigarettes such as tars and other carcinogens, but they do have nicotine in them, which is still isn’t safe.”

Dr. Lawrason adds that nicotine is known to produce several reactions in our bodies, including rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure, reduction in the oxygen supply of vital organs, blood clots, and reduced insulin levels, and may cause certain cancers on its own – no smoke required.

Nicotine may also impair prefrontal brain development in adolescents, leading to attention deficit disorder and poor impulse control. These potential harms of nicotine are particularly worrisome in view of soaring rates of e-cigarette use in U.S. teenagers.

Two rows of e-cigarettes in different colors

The nicotine in e-liquid may also be a household hazard. Many e-liquids have candy and fruit flavoring and packaging that makes them attractive to children. Cases of nicotine poisoning from e-liquid have skyrocketed, with accidental ingestions of e-liquid by kids rising by 1,500% in the past three years.

Flavored e-cigarettes may pose another health threat. They often contain a chemical compound called diacetyl, which is associated with a rare lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans that causes permanent damage to the bronchioles (the tiniest airways in the lungs).

Another major concern, noted by the CDC, is that while several e-cigarette manufacturers make models that deliver progressively lower amounts of nicotine (including models with zero nicotine), that’s only one ingredient.

READ: 8 Natural Ways To Quit Smoking

“E-cigarette use is growing rapidly,” says CDC director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. “Yet there is still a lot we don’t know about these products.”

Including what exactly is in those sleek tubes since right now there is no rule forcing manufacturers to disclose the ingredients, although the FDA is trying to expand its authority.

Ingredients aside, inhaling the chemically induced vapor may cause problems. A study out of the University of Athens in Greece found that “vaping” caused an increase in airway resistance—a  sign that your body is having a harder time breathing—in smokers and nonsmokers with healthy lungs, and at levels rivaling those of traditional cigarettes.

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