Doctors unsure on e-cig advice
Now a $2 billion-a-year industry, e-cigarettes are often branded as the smokeless alternative to cigarettes or as a tool to stop smoking altogether. The battery-powered devices turn nicotine-infused flavored oils into vapor, which is puffed like a cigarette. But very little is known about their health effects.
As state and local lawmakers struggle with the growing popularity of electronic cigarettes, doctors too are grappling with what to tell their patients.
“We have had a lot of years to know the harm of tobacco. E-cigarettes have been around since 2007, so there just has not been a body of evidence developed yet to say what’s in them,” said Dr. Pete Dehnel.
Supporters say the devices are a safe alternative to smoking tobacco and point to a recent survey in the journal Addiction that reported 60 percent of people trying to quit smoking on their own were more likely to succeed with e-cigarettes than with pure willpower or over the counter nicotine replacement therapies.
But the use of e-cigarettes is moving ahead of definitive scientific proof of benefits or harm, observers say. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just started the process to decide how to regulate the industry.
Last week, a group of 53 doctors and public health workers urged the World Health Organization not to adopt a restrictive strategy on e-cigarettes or classify e-cigarettes as tobacco. The group argued that e-cigarettes could be “among the most significant health innovations of the 21st century.”
Beyond the opinions and studies of effectiveness, researchers don’t know for sure what e-cigarette vapor does to lungs.
That lack of solid research puts doctors in a tough position, said University of Minnesota Medical Professor Dr. Anne Joseph.
While she will not discourage someone quitting smoking from trying e-cigarettes, Joseph also is not recommending them.
“They’re probably on a spectrum between no tobacco at all and combustible cigarettes, and we just don’t know where on that span they’re going to land,” she said.