The Vape Debate: What You Need to Know
Are They Safer Than Smoking?
E-cigarettes aren't thought of as 100% safe, but most experts think they're less dangerous than cigarettes, says Neal Benowitz, MD, a nicotine researcher at the University of California at San Francisco. Cigarette smoking kills almost half a million people a year in the United States. Most of the harm comes from the thousands of chemicals that are burned and inhaled in the smoke, he explains.
E-cigs don't burn, so people aren't as exposed to those toxins. A 2015 expert review from Public Health England estimated e-cigs are 95% less harmful than the real thing.
That figure is controversial and might be a little high, says Kenneth Warner, a tobacco policy researcher at the University of Michigan. But, he adds, "The worst critics of e-cigarettes would probably argue they're a half to two-thirds less dangerous. But from a practical view, they're probably on the order of 80% to 85% less dangerous, at least."
Some states and communities that ban smoking in public places also ban vaping. But, Warner says, while the danger from secondhand vapor isn't zero, "it's probably very low."
Do They Help Smokers Quit?
"We don't have the definitive study on that," Warner says. "My reading of the evidence is that it is quite convincing that e-cigarettes are helping some people quit smoking."
Caren Kagan Evans, 56, of Washington DC, is one of those people. She started smoking when she was 13-years-old. Over the years, Evans tried to quit by using the nicotine patch, gum, and even hypnosis.
Vaping worked in a month, and she's been off cigarettes for more than two years. "I'm breathing, sleeping, and eating much better since I started vaping. My 'smoker's laugh' went away, and I no longer smell like an ashtray."
But Evans' story is the exception, not the rule.
"If there was good evidence that people were using e-cigarettes just to quit smoking, there would be wide support," Benowitz says. "The problem is most of the e-cigarette use in the U.S. is dual use with cigarettes." People use e-cigs in places or situations where they can't smoke, like in a restaurant, but continue lighting up when they can, he explains.
Sward points out that according to the FDA, there's no evidence any e-cigarette is safe and effective at helping smokers quit. She suggests talking to your doctor about medications and other strategies that are proven stop-smoking tools.
The American Heart Association says e-cigs should only be used as a last resort way to quit.