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Jury still out on safety of e-cigarettes

Consumer Reports News: February 01, 2010 12:44 PM

If you've been keeping up with the e-cigarettes tug-of-war, you know it's a debate that's not going away anytime soon. With the Food and Drug Administration pushing to get them off the market and e-cigarette makers pushing back, it’s difficult to know whether the devices are an unregulated, possibly dangerous cessation aid, or as some e-cigarette retailers put it, "a healthier alternative to smoking."

But are they healthier? Health officials say "no." Last summer, the FDA issued a warning saying e-cigarettes contain potentially harmful chemicals and that clinical evidence on safety and efficacy of these products has not been submitted. Arguing also that e-cigarettes are not a legitimate therapy for smokers trying to quit, the World Health Organization is also pushing for similar studies. Meanwhile, two clinical studies on e-cigarettes have yielded inconclusive results. While one Greek study didn’t find evidence of harmful chemicals, a New Zealand study found cancer-causing chemicals.

E-cigarettes, also known as electronic cigarettes, are made of stainless steel and produce a vapor absorbed by the lungs, but no smoke. E-cigarettes contain nicotine, but no health warnings and they’re readily available for purchase online and in malls. Often, they have fruit and other sweet flavors, which could encourage children and teens to give them a try.

If you’re serious about quitting smoking, there are safer, medically proven—and less pricey—ways to go about it. On retailer Web sites we checked, e-cigarette starter kits ranged in price from around $70 to $150—and that’s not including costs of replacement batteries, nicotine refills, and accessories (cases, atomizers, filters, and more) which can run you anywhere from around $5 to $30 each.

Some would argue that, if you're a smoker, an e-cigarette is the lesser of two evils. It's true that cigarette smoking is second only to obesity as the leading health threat in America, and will certainly expose you and those around you to a laundry list of health risks, including, cancers, heart disease, and asthma. On the other hand, we still have no idea what the health implications of smoking e-cigarettes will be until proper toxicity studies are conducted. The FDA notes that e-cigarettes contain "nicotine, flavor, and other chemicals." Whether you’re trying to quit or using e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking real cigarettes, don’t you deserve to know what those "other chemicals" are?

Ginger Skinner

Read more on what the FDA is doing about e-cigarettes, and if you’d like to give up smoking, see our helpful tips on getting started  and find out which  cessation treatments work best  (subscribers only).

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