It’s not easy to quit smoking. I know. Like Mark Twain, I did it many times before finally kicking the habit nearly forty years ago by going cold turkey, without smoking cessation aids like nicotine patches, gums, lozenges or medication.
Today there is a technological approach to helping smokers quit the habit — electronic cigarettes or “e-cigarettes,” which are being marketed by several manufacturers as a “healthier way to smoke” and as an aid to help users quit smoking, leading to debate over their safety and their effectiveness as a smoking cessation method. Critics claim that e-cigarettes may be as harmful, or even more harmful than tobacco cigarettes. Instead of inhaling a cigarette’s nicotine and carbon monoxide, e-cigarette users inhale vaporized pure nicotine. Electronic cigarette makers and advocates claim that these battery-powered products can provide all pleasures of smoking without the tar, carbon monoxide and countless other chemicals that are found in conventional tobacco cigarettes — the vapor they create producing flavor and physical sensation similar to that of inhaled tobacco smoke — and while no tobacco, smoke, or combustion is actually involved in its operation, it is legal to use nearly anywhere: bars, restaurants, coffee shops, offices, and even on airplanes.
Electronic cigarettes are touted as the closest thing to actual smoking. The device looks, feels and tastes like the real thing; producing a vapour that looks like smoke and gives the smoker the throat hit that they expect and crave. Just think, one commercial blurb enthuses: “no flame, no tar, no ash, no carbon monoxide, no second-hand smoke, no smoker’s breath, no smelly clothes.”
However, very little research has been done about the effects of inhaling vaporized nicotine, making the claim that e-cigarettes are a less harmful or even safe alternative to conventional cigarettes at minimum questionable. In a recent article, The Guardian‘s Tom Riddington noted that when the FDA analyzed components of e-cigarette cartridges in 2009, they identified trace levels of tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) — cancer-causing compounds typically present in traditional cigarettes, albeit at a much lower concentration. The FDA analysis also identified the presence of diethylene glycol — the base chemical component of automotive antifreeze and brake fluids and classed as a poison by the World Health Organization. At high enough quantities diethylene glycol can cause kidney damage, nerve dysfunction and respiratory failure. Riddington notes that in another study released in March of this year, University of California researchers analyzing the aerosol contents of e-cigarettes found particles of silver, iron, aluminum and silicate, and nanoparticles of tin, chromium and nickel, and that concentrations of these elements “were higher than or equal to the corresponding concentrations in conventional cigarette smoke”, and that “many of the elements identified in [e-cigarette] aerosol are known to cause respiratory distress and disease”. Mr. Riddington comments that “until the same regulations as other nicotine replacements are imposed, e-cigarettes should be considered a snake-oil gimmick that could get a new generation hooked on nicotine before their first smoke.”
So where does the truth about e-cigarettes lie? In an effort to answer that question, Health and Kinesiology Professor William Cooke and Associate Professor of Health & Kinesiology Donovan Fogt of the University of Texas at San Antonio have received $30,000 in seed funding from UTSA to scientifically distinguish the reality from the hype. The UTSA kinesiologists will team up with Assistant Professor of Integrative Physiology Caroline Rickards at the University of North Texas Health Science Center to gather baseline data about the effects of e-cigarettes on the body’s basic physiological health.
A UTSA release notes that over the next year, the research team will study effects that inhaling vaporized nicotine has on users’ heart rate, blood pressure, resting metabolic rate, physical work capacity and brain blood flow. UTSA students pursing kinesiology and health-related careers will conduct research alongside the scholars, giving them the opportunity to learn quantitative research methods in preparation for their careers in academia and health-related professions. The scholars will be working under the hypothesis that vaporized nicotine stimulates the human nervous system in ways that could seriously impact daily living. They believe that the inhalation of vaporized nicotine has the potential to increase a person’s resting metabolism, making exercise problematic. They also believe it prevents the cardiovascular system from properly regulating arterial pressure and decreases the brain’s ability to regulate blood flow.
“E-cigarettes are perceived as safer than actual smoking, and some people even perceive them to be an attractive weight loss tool,” comments Dr. Fogt in the release. “This study aims to quantify the metabolic consequences of inhaling vaporized nicotine.”
“This study is an important first step to understanding the physiological complications and public health concerns surrounding the use of e-cigarettes, observes Dr Cooke. “It will also give us a better understanding of the health effects of pure nicotine, without the harmful poisons found in tobacco products, on the autonomic nervous system.”
The researchers say that if the study confirms their hypotheses, additional research will be needed to further understand the immediate effects of vaporized nicotine, the impact of dosage and age on an e-cigarette user’s health, and the long-term effects of e-cigarettes.”
The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) is an emerging Tier One research institution specializing in health, energy, security, sustainability, and human and social development. With nearly 31,000 students, it is the largest university in the San Antonio metropolitan region.
The UNT Health Science Center, a graduate university located in Fort Worth’s Cultural District, is one of three institutional components of The University of North Texas System. The UNTHSC is home institution to several National Institutes of Health-funded research programs and currently leads all Texas health science centers in research growth with extramural research awards having increased by more than 100 percent over the past five years. Through the Office of Clinical Trials, faculty physicians participate in clinical research projects, seeking improved treatments for disorders.
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