“Vaping” is taking off in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. With the encouragement of big tobacco companies, more and more people are trying electronic cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco-filled cigarettes. Should we be encouraged by the availability of a safe alternative to conventional cigarettes or dismayed by a new, addictive nicotine-containing product unleashed to the general public, including children, without regulatory oversight?
Why do we offer our opinion about e-cigarettes in a blog about asthma? We do so because: 1) many people with asthma smoke cigarettes, probably similar in frequency to the 19-20% of the general population who continue to smoke in the United States; and 2) we hate cigarette smoking! Our medical lives are filled to overflowing with smoking-related medical disasters, whether the slow suffocation of advanced emphysema or the horrible, inexorable death from incurable lung cancer (the cause of more cancer deaths in the United States than the next 3 most common cancer killers – colon, breast, and pancreas -- combined). Persons with asthma who smoke cigarettes put themselves in “double jeopardy,” with airway disease due to asthma combined with airway disease and emphysema due to cigarette smoking (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or “COPD”), while at the same time interfering with the beneficial effects of some of the asthma medications (the inhaled steroids).
At first blush, then, we are inclined to embrace the idea of an alternative to cigarettes without the tar and other products of combustion that predispose to the development of cancer and other diseases, like heart attacks and strokes. As physicians, we are constantly seeking aids that can help persons who are addicted to cigarettes stop smoking. We have nicotine-containing patches, gum, nasal spray, and lozenges that we can recommend, even a small, nicotine-containing cartridge that can be placed in a plastic cigarette holder to inhale nicotine to the lungs (Nicotrol®). What’s wrong with a novel nicotine delivery system, the e-cigarette, which mimics smoking more closely, with a warm mist to inhale and a visible puff of smoke to enjoy “guilt-free?”
Well, here’s our list of what’s wrong with the e-cigarette:
• We don’t know exactly what is in the e-cigarette vapor. It contains nicotine, propylene glycol, often flavoring, and perhaps other chemicals. The amount of nicotine (and other chemicals) in each cartridge is not closely regulated. The long-term effects of inhaling this vapor into the lungs are unknown. Wouldn’t you like to know this information before promoting “vaping” as a safe alternative to cigarette smoking?
• One could imagine that widespread availability of e-cigarettes, aggressively marketed to children and young adults, could lead to an increase in persons addicted to nicotine and going on to take up cigarette smoking, rather than a decrease. We have witnessed over the last few decades a national change in attitude toward cigarette smoking, restricting smoking at work, in public places, in and around schools, restaurants, bars, airplanes, some hotels, etc. It is no longer the norm. What would the implication be of unrestricted use of e-cigarettes … at the workspace or restaurant table next to yours? What’s the risk of second-hand e-cigarette vapor exposure, anyway? We don’t know.
• Nicotine is highly addictive, even without all the other poisons in tobacco smoke. Do we as a nation need to offer inhaled nicotine as an unregulated drug, including to children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, persons with heart disease, and the elderly? Several countries around the world have banned the sale of e-cigarettes. Britain plans to regulate it as a medicine.
What should the U.S. Food and Drug Administration do, on our behalf?
We would favor making e-cigarettes available like the Nicotrol® inhalation system, with a prescription, to be used for the medical indication of smoking cessation. The FDA could closely monitor and control the contents of e-cigarettes and insist that the chemical components be clearly displayed on the product, like ingredients in a skin cream. The agency could also insist that medical studies be performed to ensure the short-term and long-term safety of the medication, or to develop clear labeling warnings about the potential health risks … as for other drugs. The manufacture and sale of e-cigarettes has already become a multi-billion dollar industry; there should be plenty of money to spare to do safety testing on the product, along with assessment of its effectiveness as a smoking-cessation aid.
The Forum of International Respiratory Societies, a consortium of professional respiratory societies and experts in respiratory medicine from around the world, recently released a position statement regarding electronic cigarettes. They recommended a ban on the sales of e-cigarettes; or if not a ban, regulation as medicines; or if not regulated as medicines, regulation as tobacco products. The publication is in press; an abstract is available at the following link: http://www.atsjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1164/rccm.201407-1198PP