Daily Gazette: Health groups wary of e-cigaretes

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By Sara Foss

October 30, 2010

CAPITAL REGION — Every day, a smoker approaches Deb Keefe and asks whether electronic cigarettes can help quit smoking.

Keefe coordinates The Butt Stops Here and The Courage to Quit, smoking cessation programs run by Seton Health. And when she’s asked about electronic cigarettes, she tells people to avoid them.

“I was doing an informational table and three people approached me and asked me what I could tell them, whether the electronic cigarette is a good replacement,” Keefe said. “To me, the product isn’t safe. You don’t know exactly what’s in it, what’s in the vapor.”

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-powered, reusable devices that often look like regular cigarettes. When a user inhales, a sensor heats a cartridge in the mouthpiece, vaporizing a liquid nicotine solution so that it can be inhaled. Electronic cigarettes first became available in the U.S. three years ago and have become increasingly popular. For users, e-cigarettes are appealing because they are smoke-free and don’t contain cigarette tar and other additives.

But anti-smoking and health groups say they are concerned about the health and safety issues.

“Our biggest concern is that we don’t know what people are inhaling,” said Michael Seilback, senior director of public policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association of New York State. “I’ve seen tests that show electronic cigarettes contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals. We know that the distributors and manufacturers are making lots of unverified claims about why electronic cigarettes are good and healthy.”

Seilback said the American Lung Association supports banning the sale of electronic cigarettes in New York until the FDA has had a chance to study them further.

Earlier this fall, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would begin regulating electronic cigarettes, saying that they are both a drug and a drug delivery device. The agency sent letters to five electronic cigarette companies warning that the devices were being marketed illegally as smoking-cessation aids or were produced using poor manufacturing practices.

In 2009, the FDA released an analysis of 18 electronic cigarettes from two leading brands. The analysis showed that half the vapor samples contained carcinogens, and that one contained diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze. In addition, cartridges labeled as having no nicotine actually contained low levels of the chemical.

E-cigarette companies oppose regulation.

In its fact sheet, the Electronic Cigarette Association says that nicotine is widely available in over-the-counter products such as smoking cessation gums and lozenges, and that there is no evidence that these products or electronic cigarettes increase the consumption of nicotine by people who do not want to smoke.

The association declined to comment for this article; an e-mail from the organization said that the ECA is “currently not doing any interviews.”

A bill that would ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors has been introduced in both the state Assembly and Senate.

The bill also prohibits the distribution or sale of any item containing or delivering nicotine that is not defined by law as a tobacco product or approved by the FDA for sale as a tobacco-use cessation or harm-reduction product.

Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Health, said that the agency has been following the controversy and supports the proposed bill.

“Nicotine is an addictive drug, and we’re concerned about electronic cigarettes being a gateway to later drug use,” Constantakes said. “We definitely want to see the FDA regulate electronic cigarettes.”

Judy Rightmyer, program director for the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition, said electronic cigarettes could make it more difficult to change the social norms around tobacco, which is one of the group’s goals.

“We don’t want children to see smoking, because then they’re more likely to smoke,” Rightmyer said. “If people are smoking e-cigarettes, smoking will look like an acceptable behavior.”

Seilback said that electronic cigarettes are using the same advertising tactics tobacco companies used, such as marketing fruit-flavored products that will have more appeal to young adults and kids.

“Kids will begin smoking electronic cigarettes and become addicted to nicotine before they’ve even tried a cigarette,” Seilback said.

Keefe, a former smoker, said she recommends several products to help people quit smoking: the nicotine inhaler and two kinds of artificial cigarettes, Quit Smart and E-Z Quit.

Many smokers, she said, don’t know what the options are, and are looking to replace the hand-to-mouth movement of smoking “because it’s such a way of life for them. Smokers don’t want to be told that it’s all psychological. Well, a lot of it is psychological.”