Smoking among teenagers is a public-health nightmare waiting to happen. But is an unlikely solution, pardon the pun, right under our noses? Medical experts are building a strong case against e-cigarettes, but a recent yearlong study offers a more ambiguous answer.
The study, published in late January in the New England Journal of Medicine, surveyed about 900 British smokers seeking to kick the habit. Half were given conventional nicotine substitutes such as gum or patches. The other half got e-cigarettes.
Researchers checked the carbon monoxide levels in their subjects’ breath, a telltale sign of heavy cigarette smoking. About 20 percent of those who got e-cigarettes abstained from smoking, while only 10 percent in the gum and patch group were able to quit.
The results suggest that vaping, which mimics the experience of smoking more closely than other nicotine substitutes, can help some smokers quit, according to a Washington Post Wire Service report on the study.
But there’s more to this story than meets the eye.
Researchers also found that, among those who quit smoking, most of the e-cigarette group continued to vape after a year, according to the report. The gum and patch group stopped using nicotine substitutes altogether.
The claim that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative for traditional cigarettes is under fire by anti-smoking advocates, mainly because their long-term effects remain unknown.
E-cigarettes pose an alarming problem, said Karen dePeyster, program director for Tobacco-Free Action for Columbia and Greene Counties.
“The use of e-cigarettes is a huge problem in the school systems in both counties,” dePeyster said. “We have a youth action coordinator and at the schools’ request she has been in almost all the schools in both counties providing information on e-cigarettes, on nicotine addiction, on health risks, to students, faculty and parents in both counties. All the schools are seeing this as a huge problem.”
Beyond the health impacts that smoking has on adults, there are significant reasons to stop teens from taking up the habit, dePeyster said.
“One of the biggest reasons to keep tobacco out of the hands of teens is that nicotine causes adverse changes in the developing brain,” dePeyster said. “During adolescence the brain has not completely matured, especially the area responsible for executive functions and attention performance. This is one of the last brain areas to mature and is still developing. Smoking during adolescence increases the risk of developing psychiatric disorders and cognitive impairment in later life and are at increased risk for attention deficit.”
The evidence from the studies and testimony from local tobacco-free advocates suggests the answer lies somewhere in the middle, a modest proposal that is unlikely to satisfy either side.
Meanwhile, state elected officials should ban the sale of e-cigarettes to young people under 21 and eliminate advertising aimed at teenagers.