E-cigarettes – harmful or helpful?

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Patricia Daly | January 22nd, 2014

Earlier this month, I was watching the Golden Globe Awards on TV and I was surprised and a little alarmed to see actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus smoking an e-cigarette.  This was done as part of a comedy skit, but imagine if anyone tried smoking a real cigarette on a prime time awards show?  Within days of the broadcast, several U.S. Senators and Congressmen wrote to NBC TV expressing dismay about the message sent to children by this incident, and recommending advertising of e-cigarettes be subject to the same regulatory framework as tobacco.julia-louis-dreyfus

Many of you may have seen or heard of e-cigarettes:  these are battery-operated devices that are designed to heat and vaporize liquids, including nicotine solutions and flavourings.  They are designed to look like cigarettes and simulate smoking for users.  Use of e-cigarettes produces a second-hand vapour that can contain nicotine, propylene glycol (a respiratory irritant), flavourings and traces of heavy metals.  E-cigarettes containing nicotine are banned by Health Canada, but are widely available on the internet and for sale in shops throughout the lower mainland.

Limited evidence

E-cigarettes have been the subject of some debate in the public health community.  There is limited evidence that smokers can use e-cigarettes to help them quit or cut down tobacco use.  Some argue that they have a role in harm reduction, as a safer alternative to smoking, and should be considered as another tool for cessation along with other forms of nicotine replacement.   However, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that the efficacy of electronic cigarettes to aid in smoking cessation has not been demonstrated scientifically, and because of concerns about safety as well as effectiveness, at this time “…consumers should be strongly advised not to use any of these products…” (http://www.who.int/tobacco/communications/statements/eletronic_cigarettes/en/)

There is also growing concern that tobacco companies are getting into the e-cigarette business, and heavily marketing these products to youth, who then become addicted to nicotine.  Use of e-cigarettes in public places can re-normalize smoking behavior for children and youth, and may become a gateway to smoking cigarettes.

What will VCH do?

As a result of these concerns, particularly their use among youth, VCH Medical Health Officers will:

  1. Add e-cigarettes to the VCH Smoke-Free Premises policy, which will ban their use in all VCH owned and operated facilities and on facility grounds.
  2. Recommend that all school districts ban e-cigarettes from school property.
  3. Work with local municipalities to consider adding e-cigarettes to existing municipal smoking by-laws.

About the Author

Patricia Daly
email iconPatricia.Daly@vch.ca  

Dr. Patty Daly is chief medical health officer and vice president of public health as well as a clinical professor in the School of Population and Public Health in the Faculty of Medicine at UBC. Patty writes about public health issues. View all posts by Patty.

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4 comments on “E-cigarettes – harmful or helpful?

  • Jillian says:

    They need to be banned from sale to minors (check identifiication) and hidden from view in all stores.

    This is one trend that we don’t children to pick up on and the longer it takes to regulate the sales the harder it will be to reverse any dependency/useage plus no one wants minors suffer any long term effects

    If parents are unable to supervise their children outside the home then it is up to the Health Authorities to make sure they don’t have access to something on the shelves that compromises their health.

  • Jillian says:

    It’s good to see that the cigarettes have been put away in concealed cabinets in all the stores but the e-cigarettes I see in play view on the counter right where you pay for your purchases.. In 7-11 stores and many convience stores they are in a display cabinet that you can’t miss. My children have asked many times what they were used for.
    It’s just one more subject parents have to discuss with their children along with drugs, the protocols of computer use, weapons and everything else that seems to be prevalent in our society. Parents need to be very aware of what their children are doing and not to assume that if they are old enough to hang out at the mall and have the latest technology then they are old enough to always make the right decisions. Not so!!!!
    Unfortunately not all children have parents that are that attentive so it should be up to health system to remove the e-cigarettes from all front counters like they did for real cigarettes as it is in fact a health issue.
    Lets put a stop to the cigarette manufacturers that have invested in equally lethal products to promote.

  • Suni Boraston says:

    Thanks for this Patty. I agree with Clay, my 15 year old son also thinks that e-cigarettes are totally harmless. Seeing it on TV isn’t helping our argument.

  • Clay Adams says:

    Thanks Patty for drawing attention to this subject. As the parent of a 13-year-old, I am amazed at how young teens seem to think that e-cigarettes are totally harmless and in no way, shape or form linked to either cigarette use or health issues. They (and my daughter is among them) truly believe that there are no chemical implications or future addiction issues associated with e-cigarettes. Naivety, clever marketing, or a bit of both? While I respect a person’s right to choose what they do with their body, I also want to see those decisions made in an informed manner. The more we can do to educate – especially our young population – the better health choices they will make.

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