By Hao Lu
As electronic cigarette sales have grown nationwide during the past year, there is heightened interest in their health risks compared to traditional cigarettes. E-cigarettes are battery-operated products designed to turn nicotine and other chemicals into a vapor, simulating the act of tobacco smoking.
Boston issued 61 permits to sell e-cigarettes in March. This is five times the number of permits issued in the same time period last year, according to the Boston Public Health Commission’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.
Although e-cigarettes look just like regular ones, there are still major differences between the two. E-cigarettes do not require a match or lighter for use. Instead, they hold a battery, a vaporization chamber and a cartridge filled with liquid nicotine.
When using e-cigarettes, just puff on the device as you would do to a regular cigarette. The device heats the liquid and changes it to a nicotine-filled vapor that smokers inhale and exhale. It looks like smoking a regular cigarette, but since there is nothing burning, there will be no smoke fumes.
Proponents of the e-cigarette say that while e-cigarettes give nicotine addicts the same amount of nicotine as a regular cigarette, they do not produce the same toxic smoke that would cause lung disease and cancer when inhaled over time. Since there are no products of combustion to be inhaled, no tobacco toxins are inhaled besides nicotine.
The lack of tobacco toxins, however, does not mean that e-cigarettes pose no health risks. While e-cigarettes do not produce secondhand smoke, they do produce secondhand vapor. Even though manufacturers say it is merely water vapor and therefore harmless, regulatory agencies and health experts contend that e-cigarette makers have not conducted the research needed to prove this. Meanwhile, manufacturers often do not make specific health or safety claims about e-cigarettes.
Opponents of e-cigarettes have argued that people shouldn’t be subjected to secondhand vapor until manufacturers can prove it to be safe for everyone, including children, the elderly and people with certain medical conditions. Some individuals with health conditions have reported that the vapor is irritating to their eyes, noses and throats, and that it affects their breathing and makes them nauseous.
One other problem is that e-cigarettes can be easily purchased online, which makes it easier for children to buy them than regular tobacco cigarettes. U.S. laws requiring age limits for tobacco cigarette purchases do not apply to e-cigarette sales. Some states have their own policies requiring e-cigarette buyers to provide proof of age, while other states are still working on the process.
The FDA said “further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes.” It is still unclear how many years it would take before regulation of e-cigarettes is implemented.
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