E-Cig Benefits Outweigh Risks: Study

E-cigarettes could reduce smoking-related deaths by 21 percent, according to a model created by an international team of tobacco control specialists.

Even though the use of e-cigarettes has been rising rapidly since their introduction more than a decade ago, an international team of tobacco control experts finds that the public health benefits outweigh the harms if used instead of smoking, as reported this week in a report published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

According to a model developed by researchers from the United States, Australia and Canada, even after accounting for the likely rise in e-cigarette usage among adolescents and young adults, conservative estimates of possible harm reduction project a 21 percent decrease in smoking-related deaths and 20 percent decline in years lost as a result of e-cigarette adoption in people born in 1997 or later.

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"Our model is consistent with recent evidence that, while e-cigarette use has markedly increased, cigarette smoking among youth and young adults has fallen dramatically," explains lead author David Levy of Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

E-cigarettes do, however, have the potential to increase risks should young users who would not otherwise have smoked pick up the habit, particularly if they turn to conventional cigarettes. Levy and his co-authors, however, believe that the notion e-cigarette usage could lead users to adopt other tobacco products has been overblown.

That doesn't mean youth smoking shouldn't be continuously monitored and stringent restrictions on underage tobacco sales maintained, steps the authors advocate.

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Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that e-cigarette use among middle and high school tripled from 2013 to 2014. Over the course of that year, the number of middle school users climbed from approximately 120,000 to 450,000 students, and among high schools the number jumped from 660,000 to 2 million student users.

Despite the uptick and the accompanying decrease in conventional tobacco use, considering a broad range of reasonable outcomes, "e-cigarettes are likely to reduce cigarette smoking and not lead to offsetting increases in harm from the use of e-cigarettes and more deadly cigarettes," Levy concludes.

Perhaps bolstering the findings of this latest study is another published earlier this week in the Journal of Toxicology Mechanisms and Methods that found exclusive use of e-cigarettes reduces smokers' exposure to harmful chemicals to levels similar to if they had quit completely.

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For the study, researchers took samples of urine, blood and breath from 105 smoking over the course of a five-day trial and measured in changes in harmful chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, found to be significant contributors to health risks related to smoking. One group of smokers abstained from any kind of tobacco intake, another used e-cigarettes exclusively, and a third used both e-cigarettes and their preferred cigarette brand.

In both the abstinence group and e-cigarette-exclusive cohort, carbon monoxide levels went down 75 percent, and levels of volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, fell over 80 percent across both groups. In fact, levels of nearly all chemicals tested by the researchers were almost indistinguishable across both groups, except for nicotine, which is of course present in e-cigarettes. Nicotine levels were still lower in the e-cigarette-exclusive group versus smokers who continued to puff on conventional cigarettes.

Taken together, the findings of both studies certainly aren't meant to encourage anyone who otherwise wouldn't consider smoking to take up the habit, or to portray e-cigarettes as entirely harmless. Abstaining from smoking entirely is still the healthiest option. But for smokers who can't yet bring themselves to quit and are looking for a potentially less harmful substitute to cigarette habit, e-cigarettes could at least be a step in the right direction.