E-cigarettes – the low down


Stopping smoking is never easy so anything new that aids the process is welcomed with enthusiasm by would-be quitters. The latest quitting tool to hit the market is the e-cigarette; but what exactly are they and how can they help you?

What are e-cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes are designed to look and feel just like the real thing. E-cigs typically consist of four components: an LED light, a battery, an atomiser and a cartridge containing liquid nicotine.

Nicotine is a highly addictive stimulant which smokers derive from smoking cigarettes. The addictive nature of the substance is one of the main reasons people find quitting so difficult. The level of nicotine contained in e-cig cartridges varies and some also contain flavourings. When you suck on the e-cig device, the nicotine is vapourised by a heating element and is then delivered to the smoker.

Are e-cigarettes safe?

E-cigs are definitely safer than ordinary cigarettes as the majority of toxic chemicals inhaled by the smoker are contained in the smoke itself and it is this which causes the most obvious health problems like COPD. However, we don’t yet know the long-term effects of e-cigs on the body.

No matter what it says on the packaging, you cannot be absolutely sure what ingredients have gone into the e-cigarette you have chosen to use as they are not yet regulated as medicines. Some local authority trading standards departments have randomly tested some brands of e-cigs and found them to contain some of the same toxic, cancer-causing substances contained in tobacco smoke. There are also concerns that the vapour produced by e-cigs may cause reduced oxygen levels in the body which could present a health risk to vulnerable individuals with certain medical conditions. Doctors have also expressed grave concerns about the use of e-cigarettes by pregnant women.

Another point to note is the actual safety of the devices. There have been instances of house fires being started by e-cigs. Some devices have overheated and actually exploded; causing very hot components to land on soft furnishings, starting a fire. E-cigarette batteries need to be recharged, often using a USB port on a computer. Never leave an e-cig unattended whilst on-charge for long periods of time, especially not overnight.

Can you obtain e-cigarettes on prescription?

There is no concrete, proven medical evidence on how e-cigs can be used effectively to stop smoking and as such they are not currently available in the UK on the NHS. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority (MHRA) is currently conducting research into the safety and benefits of e-cigarettes but as yet they are unregulated and unlicensed in the UK.

New legislation will be adopted in 2014 so that all nicotine containing devices, including e-cigs, are regulated as a medication in the UK by 2016. This will ensure that all products containing nicotine are safe, are of the right quality, and do actually work.

So for the time being, the jury is out on e-cigarettes and their benefits to those trying to quit smoking tobacco products. They are certainly rapidly gaining in popularity, rather worryingly among teenagers who view them as a ‘safe’, cool alternative to conventional cigarettes. But for now the message to users would appear to be to ‘watch this space’.



*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.

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