Electronic cigarettes, or "e-cigs" are a relatively new phenomenon exploding in popularity. While there are unanswered questions about their safety, large groups of people are trying them, out of a belief they are may be safer than other forms of smoking, or because they are attracted to the wide variety of flavors available.
They are easy to acquire, and sold online, even to teenagers who otherwise would have a hard time buying nicotine products. A recent study led by Rebecca Williams, a behavioral health researcher at the University of North Carolina, found out just how easy it is for teenagers to illegally buy electronic cigarettes online.
The study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, involved 11 teenagers who tried to buy e-cigarettes from 98 online vendors. They succeeded 75 times. Only 5 websites looked at would not allow the purchase to be made without a birth date verified by a social security number, and therefore failed to let the purchase go through.
Some websites require you to click a box "I am over 18" in order to enter the site or make a purchase, but do nothing to verify the customer is truly of age. The study concluded "in the absence of federal regulation" of this new product and trend, "youth e-cigarette use has increased," and this is abetted by "a regulatory vacuum," allowing online vendors to use "few, if any, efforts to prevent sales to minors."
Even a website sympathetic to online e-cigarette vendors, while critical of some element of the study, admitted that "age verification processes should be improved, and all vendors should do everything they can to prevent sales to minors."
The tobacco in e-cigarettes is delivered in a liquid cartridge, that comes in a wide variety of flavors, and some candy and sweet flavors like "cotton candy" or "blackberry" that may appeal to children. This combined with how easy it is to buy them, is responsible for a large number of teens using e-cigs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1.78 million middle and high schoolers were using them in 2012.
Safer than cigarettes?
Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated devices that allow nicotine to be consumed in a vapor, rather than smoke. While the sale of conventional cigarettes in the U.S. is declining, e-cigarettes and "vaping" is becoming more popular. The electronic cigarette industry is estimated to be making $10 billion by 2017. A large part of this is due to popular perceptions that electronic cigarettes are safer than other forms of smoking.
Slogans like "stop smoking, start vaping," are not uncommon. However, the truth is that the full health risks of e-cigarettes are not yet known, and more studies need to be done before the product can truly claim to be less toxic.
E-cigarettes still contain high amounts of nicotine, and that is the main thing that makes tobacco smoking so addictive. While some people market e-cigarettes as something that can help someone stop smoking, by perpetuating a nicotine addiction, they may end up making true quitting harder.It is true that electronic cigarettes stimulate tobacco smoke with fewer of the toxic chemicals and tar that are the main causes of the 400,000 smoking related deaths in the U.S. each year.
However, they also contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals of their own. Some studies have suggested the vapor may, compared with traditional cigarettes, contain up to 5-10 higher levels of formaldehyde, a chemical that can be very toxic if breathed. Currently, there is no regulation of the refillable cartridges, so there is no accepted measures of purity or way to ensure the amount of nicotine is below toxic levels.
Early exposure to nicotine is particularly worrisome, in light of a recent study showing that nicotine exposure may prime the brain to become addicted to other substances. E-cigarette use can get someone addicted to nicotine, and act as a "gateway to other tobacco products, with known serious risks to health. That is why 41 states have banned the sale of these "e-cigs" to minors, giving it the same strict laws given to other nicotine-containing products.
These products have yet to be thoroughly evaluated in scientific studies, so it's difficult to say whether or not they are truly safer than conventional smoking. In the mean time, it is wise to proceed with caution, and do more to keep them out of the hands of teenaged non-smokers.