DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I’ve been a smoker for years. I’m thinking about switching to electronic cigarettes or to a nicotine inhaler because I’ve heard they aren’t as bad for you as regular cigarettes. Is that true?
ANSWER: Electronic cigarettes and nicotine inhalers both deliver nicotine to your body without tobacco. But that’s where the similarity ends. The two are quite different when it comes to how they’re used and how much doctors know about their safety. Nicotine inhalers are a proven safe and effective way to help people stop smoking. In contrast, very little is known about the health effects of electronic cigarettes.
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-operated devices that look like regular cigarettes. Like traditional tobacco cigarettes, they contain nicotine. When you use an e-cigarette, a liquid inside it that includes nicotine is heated and turns into a vapor you inhale. It also makes a vapor cloud that looks like cigarette smoke.
The manufacturers claim that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to tobacco cigarettes. But there are significant questions about the safety of these products. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) analyzed samples of two popular brands of e-cigarettes, they found varying amounts of nicotine and traces of toxic chemicals, including substances that are known to cause cancer.
The liquid inside many e-cigarettes contains a substance called propylene glycol. It creates the e-cigarette’s vapor. Other common uses of propylene glycol are in cosmetics and as an ingredient in fog machines and antifreeze. The specific health effects of this product are not clear.
No studies have been done to examine the safety of e-cigarettes. As a result, there is no evidence that doctors can use to assess the impact this product may have on a person’s body. Also, no convincing evidence shows that e-cigarettes are useful in helping people to eventually stop smoking.