Can Vaping Help You Quit Smoking? An Expert Q&A
E-cigarettes are becoming increasingly prominent in society, and so is the perception that vaping — the act of inhaling e-cigarettes — is the lesser of two evils when it comes to nicotine addiction. However, to healthcare professionals, the verdict is clear: when it comes to your body, the goal is not to do less harm; it’s to do no harm.
Vaping may cause less damage than traditional smoking, but e-cigarettes present their own array of potential risks. The most potent risks include unregulated and untested products with limited research into long-term effects.
“Because e-cigarettes are unregulated, there isn’t a good amount of information about them, such as the amounts and types of components and potentially harmful constituents,” explained Carol Southard, MS, RN, tobacco treatment specialist at Northwestern Medicine. “Manufacturers and retailers of these products claim that electronic cigarettes are safe, but they have not been fully evaluated for safety, quality and efficacy.”
Southard, who helps run an effective tobacco cessation program at Northwestern Medicine, answered our top five questions about vaping.
1. What are the risks of vaping?
As far as I am concerned, all of these products are risky, but the biggest risk is that vaping is a “gateway” to smoking. Like any product with nicotine (which is more addictive than heroin, cocaine or alcohol), many who start with e-cigarettes may develop a lifelong addiction to nicotine and inevitably turn to conventional cigarettes. Furthermore, any time anything is inhaled directly into the respiratory tract, there is inevitable damage.
2. How similar are e-cigarettes to nicotine patches or gum?
Not at all similar. Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products just deliver nicotine. There are no added dangerous chemicals. NRT products are safe and effective when used appropriately, and all five NRT products are FDA-approved.
3. Can vaping help you quit smoking?
Although some e-cigarettes have been marketed as smoking cessation aids, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that e-cigarettes promote successful long-term quitting. In fact, a recent report released by the Surgeon General concludes that the data supporting this idea is “extremely weak.” And there is some evidence that current smokers are using e-cigarettes as a way to ingest nicotine in places where smoking is restricted. This may cause some smokers to delay or even avoid quit attempts altogether.
4. Are there any benefits to vaping?
While electronic cigarettes are probably “harm reduction” when compared to traditional tobacco products, health benefits only truly occur by stopping use of all tobacco and inhaled products. Moreover, there are proven safe and effective cessation strategies and treatments, including counseling and FDA-approved cessation medications, which are woefully underutilized. All the attention surrounding vaping is muddying the waters. Only one in four smokers has ever tried a cessation medication, even though three NRT products are available over the counter.
5. What do studies say?
Because e-cigarettes are unregulated, there isn’t a good amount of information about them. That said, an FDA analysis of e-cigarettes from two leading brands found that the samples contained carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals, including diethylene glycol, which is found in antifreeze.
In 2015, a report from Greek researchers found that using e-cigarettes caused breathing difficulties in both smokers and non-smokers. This year, a research group based in France found that e-cigarettes contain “potentially carcinogenic elements.” The British Medical Association and the World Health Organization have each issued warnings about the dangers that may be associated with the smoking devices. In addition, there are no studies that have considered the long-term health effects of these products.
Most recently, the Surgeon General confirmed that the inhaled vapors contain potentially harmful chemicals, and that there is some association between nicotine use and the effects on the brain, moods and addictive behaviors. The Surgeon General also reported that the number of young adults using these products has skyrocketed in the last five years, confirming that e-cigarettes are becoming increasingly prominent in society.
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