Are E-Cigarettes Safe? Here’s What the Science Says

In 1965, when Herbert Gilbert was granted the first patent on a smoke- and tobacco-­free cigarette, he wrote that the product would “provide a safe and harmless means for and method of smoking.”

More than 60 years later, however, modern iterations of Gilbert’s invention have sparked debate in the public-health community. E-cigarettes, which have grown increasingly popular in the past five years, were designed as a tool to help people quit ­smoking—and by doing so they should drastically reduce rates of lung cancer and other diseases. But the question is, does that potential outweigh their possible risks to human health?

No easy answer

Traditional cigarettes work by simple combustion: when tobacco is lit, it combines with oxygen and creates an inhalable smoke. E-cigarettes, sold by brands including Juul, Blu and Vuse, heat a chemical-­packed liquid that typically contains nicotine and often a flavoring agent, creating an aerosol. By delivering ­nicotine without tar and other nasty by-­products of combustion, e-cigarettes purportedly give smokers a healthier alternative to cigarettes while still satisfying cravings.

It seems like a win-win. But in practice, there is no consensus yet about whether or not e-cigarettes effectively help smokers ditch cigarettes. Vapes, as they’re called, contain fewer of the cancer-­causing chemicals found in traditional cigarettes (like arsenic, benzene and formaldehyde), but there is little long-term data about their effects on health—and preliminary science suggests that they may harm the lungs and heart. Plus, while e-cigs are made for and legally available only to adults, they’re popular among ­teenagers—­potentially priming a new generation for nicotine addiction and tobacco use, experts worry.

Juul is the most popular e-cigarette. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Juul sold 16.2 million of its sleek, flash-drive-­resembling devices in 2017, 641% more than the year before. The company says it’s conducting studies on smoking cessation, toxicology and more. “We want to understand everything and we want to share all that data, because that’s ultimately what’s going to move the needle for the public-health conversation,” says Ashley Gould, Juul’s chief administrative officer. Gould also emphasizes that Juul was founded “to provide a satisfying alternative to cigarettes, with the objective of completely eliminating cigarettes.”

But many smokers who turn to e-cigarettes are not making the switch completely. Research from the CDC found that in 2015, about 59% of adults who used e-cigarettes also smoked. (­Adolescents who vape are also more likely than their peers to smoke cigarettes as well, according to a recent RAND Corporation study.) While some experts believe that replacing any amount of cigarette smoking with vaping is a good thing, some research suggests that dual use may be riskier than either smoking or vaping alone. An August study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that both daily smoking and vaping are associated with a higher risk of heart attack, and that doing the two concurrently compounds those risks.



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