E-Cigs Are Often Mislabeled and May Not Help You Quit Smoking, Study Finds

By May Wilkerson 07/24/15

Electronic cigarettes may be as addictive as the real thing.

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Electronic cigarettes are widely seen and promoted as a healthy alternative to tobacco smoking. But new research finds that the popular devices, which heat up and vaporize liquids containing nicotine, may not be effective quitting tools. Researchers found that e-cigs are commonly mislabeled and may be just as addictive as tobacco cigarettes.

In a study published in Chemical Research in Toxicology, researchers from the American University of Beirut and the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, studied the types and levels of nicotine found in various brands of e-cig vapor. They found that all brands of this “e-liquid” contain the strongest form of nicotine, that is most easily absorbed by the body, making the devices as addictive as the real thing. Even more worrisome, they found that the levels of nicotine contained in e-cigs often didn't match the label.

E-cig makers claim that these devices can help people wean off cigarettes, but this may not be an effective quitting method. A separate study has found that even reducing levels of nicotine in cigarettes doesn’t help people quit. Researchers recruited 135 smokers with no interest in quitting, asking some to smoke cigarettes with progressively less nicotine in them over the course of a year. They found that almost none of these smokers ended up reducing or quitting smoking in the long-term.

“We don't know that very low nicotine cigarettes will not work to reduce nicotine dependence and enhance quitting, but progressively reducing nicotine content of cigarettes in the way we did, without other means of supporting smokers, did not produce the desired results,” said Dr. Neal Benowitz, a professor at the University of California San Francisco.

Another concern is that e-cigs, which are becoming popular with young people, could act as a nicotine “gateway” into traditional smoking among teens. A recent study found that one-third of teens in Hawaii had tried e-cigs, half of whom had never smoked real cigarettes. Researchers claimed that this pattern could lead to an “epidemic of teen tobacco use.”

“The concern is that e-cigarette advertising is recruiting intermediate risk adolescents to nicotine use—kids who would not otherwise have started smoking,” said James Sargent, of Dartmouth Hitchcock's Norris Cotton Cancer Center, in a report published in the journal Pediatrics. “These are kids who might go on to smoke cigarettes, which are much better at delivering nicotine than e-cigarettes.”

Nearly 9% of eighth graders in the U.S. have admitted to using an e-cig, more than twice as many who have smoked a normal cigarette. Some experts worry that e-cigs will cause setbacks in anti-smoking campaigns, which have significantly reduced smoking rates over the past few decades.

“I worry that the tremendous progress that we've made over the last almost two decades in smoking could be reversed on us by the introduction of e-cigarettes,” said Professor Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan.

Experts have urged the FDA to regulate the packaging and marketing of these products, which so far have largely evaded any form of regulation.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.