This article originally appeared in the Sept. 10, 2009 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
A lot of smoke has been blown recently about “electronic” cigarettes, which are being promoted as a supposedly safe alternative to traditional tobacco.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that these electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, contain cancer-causing chemicals and other toxins, including a compound used in antifreeze.
Touted by manufacturers as "the smoker's smart choice," e-cigarettes are clearly being marketed to young smokers, and would-be smokers, and are easy to buy online and in many shopping malls. The battery-operated devices use cartridges filled with highly-addictive nicotine; flavorings such as chocolate, bubblegum, apple, mint, and vanilla, and other chemicals and convert them into a vapor that's inhaled by the smoker.
The FDA analyzed the ingredients in cartridges from two leading brands of e-cigarettes, which are made outside the United States, most often in China. The agency found diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze, in one sample and carcinogens, including nitrosamines, in others.
Because they haven't been submitted to the FDA for evaluation or approval, e-cigarettes are not required to post the health warnings that nicotine replacement products or conventional cigarettes do. The FDA has expressed concerns about e-cigarettes but it may not have the legal authority to prevent their importation and sale.
"Electronic cigarettes still deliver a highly addictive substance, namely nicotine. They are not marketed nor intended to be nicotine replacement or an aid in cessation,” says Dr. Tony Scalzo, medical director of the Missouri Regional Poison Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. “Despite the lack of burning paper or tobacco, the nicotine remains nicotine with all of its associated detrimental effects on coronary and other blood vessels as well as its psychological and physical addiction."
In the same way that smokeless tobacco products might seem safer than regular cigarettes, e-cigarettes can appeal to young smokers as a harmless way to indulge in a vice still seen as cool by many kids and teens. But there's no such thing as a safe nicotine product.
Make sure to add e-cigarettes to the list of no-no's whenever you talk to your kids about the dangers of smoking and using tobacco products. And if your child is trying to quit, make sure he or she knows that e-cigarettes are not a safe alternative, or even a good way to step down from nicotine addiction.
Of course, you are the most important role model for your kids. So if you smoke, it's time to quit — without a hazardous nicotine crutch like e-cigarettes. To get a free quit plan, call 1-800 QUIT-NOW.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of www.cardinalglennon.com.