E-cigarettes: health revolution or fresh pack of trouble?

from The Guardian by Leo Hickman

Smokers who want to stub out the habit are turning in their millions to electronic cigarettes. But how safe is ‘vaping’ from them – and does it lead to tobacco use anyhow?

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world,” said Mark Twain. “I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”

Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances consumed by humans. It takes as little as seven seconds for the drug to reach the brain once inhaled through a cigarette. Smoking-related illnesses kill around 114,000 people a year in the UK and cost the NHS an estimated £2.7bn. If only there was a reliable, cost-effective way to help smokers quit the “death stick”.

To date, the options have been twofold: encourage smokers to use nicotine-replacement products such as gum and patches, or greatly limit the places where smokers can get their fix, via the introduction of smoking bans in public places. Each has been successful – it is now almost six years since a public smoking ban was introduced across the UK – but the habit is still proving hard to stub out, with one in five adults in the UK categorised as a regular smoker. However, many health campaigners are greatly excited by the sudden boom in use of e-cigarettes, which have seen sales rocket over the past two years, with as many as one million smokers now said to have tried “vaping”.

E-cigarettes let smokers continue the habitual act of holding a small white stick between their fingers and then inhaling a dose of nicotine. But they do so without the tar, smoke and cocktail of other harmful compound chemicals that do the vast majority of harm in a real cigarette. Instead, the nicotine is delivered to the lungs via a spritz of water vapour – hence, the term “vaping” – from a tiny canister contained within the battery-operated plastic “cigarette”.

But just as they look set to transform the health of smokers, they now face the prospect of greatly increased regulation and even a possible ban from use in public places, with some critics arguing that their health claims have been overstated. Worse, perhaps, they could act as a “gateway” to the smoking of real cigarettes if marketed at impressionable children and young adults. Although e-cigarettes are legally allowed to be sold to children, some secondary schools have banned their use.

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