With a steady decline in traditional cigarettes, tobacco companies are looking for new ways to get people addicted to smoking.
Now, with the third largest U.S. tobacco company launching a massive campaign to promote electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, smoking may be on rise again. In fact, about 6% of adults have tried e-cigarettes, a number that has nearly doubled since 2010, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The e-cigarette is a smokeless electronic device that allows the user to inhale a vapor of liquid nicotine in order to imitate traditional smoking methods. The new gadget is touted as safe and harmless by tobacco companies, but our tobacco prevention and cessation experts tell a different story.
Claims that e-cigarettes are 'safe' are misleading
"We've been telling society for the past 30 years that they shouldn't smoke, and that tobacco is bad," says Paul Cinciripini, Ph.D., director of MD Anderson's Tobacco Treatment Program. "But tobacco companies are smart and have a good marketing strategy when it comes to promoting new products."
"Promoting the e-cigarettes already on the shelves as 'safe' is misleading and, if looked at as a harmless alternative to cigarettes, could potentially lead to a new generation of smokers more likely to become tobacco dependent," Cinciripini says. "There is not enough research involving e-cigarettes for us to really know what's in them such as added components that could be potentially harmful."
Cinciripini adds that research and regulation is also needed to understand e-cigarettes' long-term effects.
E-cigarettes may be especially dangerous for children and youth
Alexander Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., smoking cessation expert and director of MD Anderson's Tobacco Outreach Education Program, is concerned that the popularity of the e-cigarette will be staggering and perhaps detrimental to our most vulnerable population - the younger generation.
"The e-cigarette contains nicotine, which is addictive, and it can be a gateway for users to switch to other nicotine products," says Prokhorov, whose research focuses on smoking prevention and cessation in youth.
Prokhorov says that kids are lured into believing the products such as e-cigarettes are safer when disguised by creative packaging and popular flavoring, but the reality is that they haven't been tested.
"What looks cool and attractive can be an illusion, especially to children and teens who are easily impressed," Prokhorov says. "We must be proactive in educating our communities, schools and government about dangers associated with these products."
And, Prokhorov adds, once a young person starts to use nicotine, he or she is more likely to try other tobacco products, including cigarettes, which put users at increased risk for lung cancer and other diseases.