Are e-cigarettes truly harmful?

Invented only 10 years ago in China, e-cigarettes have become popular worldwide, and are a growing source of controversy and debate. According to Thomas Glynn, of the American Cancer Society “They have been described both as a miracle answer to the devastating effects of cigarette smoking and as a grave danger to public health.”

Here in Brazil, in 2009, ANVISA  (the Brazilian health authority) banned e-cigarettes. The law “prohibits the commercialization and importation of any electronic smoking device, popularly known as electronic cigarettes, e-ciggy, ecigar, among others”. 

Despite the law, e-cigarettes may be found for sale on the Internet in Brazil, and Brazilians who travel internationally may see these devices in use. Today let’s look at some e cigarette facts and controversies.

E-cigarettes were invented by a Chinese pharmacist in 2003, and they were initially sold only in China, and several years later began to be exported worldwide. Overall sales exceed a billion dollars per year, and as a portent of the future, several large cigarette makers, including Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, have entered the e-cigarette market.

E-cigarettes come in various configurations but often resemble a traditional cigarette. They consist of a chamber that holds a refillable liquid, consisting of nicotine suspended in the organic compound propylene gycol, often along with flavor components such as mint or chocolate.

In some models, when the user inhales on the cigarette, a heating element rapidly turns a small amount of the liquid into vapor that is inhaled and exhaled by the user. Some of them glow red on the tip to simulate a real cigarette, and they all contain a small battery, which can be recharged, sometimes using a USB port.

The controversies surround various issues: Do the devices really help people quit smoking, or just convert them to another addiction? Is the vapor safe to inhale, and safe for other people exposed to the vapor? Do they encourage children to take up smoking?

Regarding whether they help people quit smoking, in 2013 a New Zealand study of 657 smokers, published in medical journal Lancet, concluded that e cigarettes were “modestly effective” in helping smokers quit, similar in effectiveness to nicotine patches, and with “few adverse effects”.

However, other health experts caution that little is known about the long-term harm of inhaling the vapor which contains various chemicals and flavors, and which is often manufactured in China. Still, the consensus seems to be that e-cigarrettes are probably a safer alternative to real cigarettes, since they lack the thousands of known carcinogens found in tobacco smoke.

Second hand e-cigarette vapor hazards are still unknown, and a hot topic of controversy. In the United States, various cities and states have enacted legislation outlawing their use indoors (and to minors), but the “jury is still out” regarding how dangerous the vapor is for bystanders. The US Food and Drug Administration has said that they will regulate e-cigarettes, but as yet there are no federal laws restricting use or sale.

The bottom line is that e-cigarettes will probably not soon enter the legitimate Brazilian market, and research into safety of these devices still lags far behind their worldwide use. Likely however, they are not as dangerous as traditional cigarettes both for the user and the “passive” user, but we will keep you posted here as more reliable information becomes available.

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Esta postagem também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)