A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

E-cigarettes: Nicotine repackaged

Nicotine in electronic cigarettes, better known as e-cigarettes, makes them no better than regular cigarettes, as far as a Marshfield Clinic cancer specialist is concerned.

“Nicotine causes addiction,” said Dr. Adedayo Onitilo, a Marshfield Clinic oncologist and chairman of the Wisconsin Cancer Council. “If you’re using an e-cigarette, you’re not going to cut that addiction.”

E-cigarettes escape regulation

E-cigs are still relatively new and have escaped widespread regulation, although that has been changing in recent months. A number of cities and states have banned indoor “vaping,” as the use of e-cigs is known. The Food and Drug Administration has also moved to put these new devices under its review process.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), poison center calls related to e-cigs have increased from one a month in 2010 to 215 per month this year. More than half the calls involved children younger than 5 years old. The liquid containing nicotine used in e-cigs is highly toxic if it’s ingested, inhaled or exposed to eyes or skin.

With an e-cig you take a puff and it triggers a sensor to switch on a small, battery-powered heater. The heater vaporizes liquid nicotine in a small cartridge that activates a red light on the “lit” end and produces a light vapor.

Some people try e-cigs as an alternative to smoking. No proof is available that e-cigs help a smoker quit, but plenty of concern exists that they may be a gateway to smoking for younger people.


Electronic cigarette diagram

E-cigs popular with teens

“The whole design of an e-cigarette looks ‘cool,’ like they’re trying to appeal to younger people,” said Dr. James Meyer, who specializes in adolescent medicine at Marshfield Clinic. “They come in multiple flavors with names like cotton candy, chocolate and fruit flavors.”

Meyer said he’s seen an increasing number of teenagers using e-cigarettes during the past five years.

“Most teens don’t want to have negative things happen to them, such as cancer down the road,” he said. “The ingredients in e-cigs are completely uncontrolled, but some samples have revealed such toxic compounds as propylene glycol, a close cousin of automotive antifreeze.”

When you can talk to teens one-on-one, most will admit they don’t want to mess with ingredients that can potentially cause high blood pressure, spasms, heart rhythm problems, miscarriages, premature births and even strokes. Nicotine can cause unpleasant physical side effects in new users, including nausea, sweating, increased heart rate and jitters.

“We finally have made real progress,” Onitilo said. “A lot of my cancer patients tell me cigarette smoking used to be the cool thing to do. Now if people start thinking that smoking is cool again because of e-cigarettes, we may just erase all the gains we’ve made.”

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