More than five years after the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the first electronic cigarettes, there is no doubt that they are a boon to the tobacco industry.
In fact, a recent study by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control found that electronic cigarettes were associated with a 13% lower death rate from all causes.
But there is also no doubt the devices have potential to become a serious public health issue in the United States.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published Tuesday, is one of the first to provide detailed analysis of the devices.
It also calls for an increased focus on the potential harms of using them, as well as a broader conversation about how they can be regulated.
“The data show that, when used as intended, electronic cigarettes pose a significant risk to public health,” the report says.
It is important to note that this study did not use the term “electronic cigarette,” but instead examined the risk of smoking compared to a standard cigarette.
“We looked at the impact of electronic cigarettes on tobacco use,” said lead author Jessica Karp, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University.
“And we found that the exposure to secondhand smoke was associated with an increased risk of lung cancer, which is a major risk factor for lung cancer.”
While it is not clear exactly how much of the nicotine produced by electronic cigarettes is absorbed into the bloodstream, the study found that a quarter of the vapor emitted by electronic cigarette users also made it into the blood.
This was more than twice as much as the rate of absorption for tobacco.
“When people smoke, their lungs exhale in a vapor that is about 40 percent nicotine and about 15 percent water,” said Karp.
“So we know that there’s nicotine in those aerosols, and it gets into the body.”
What does this mean for consumers?
While the study did find that electronic cigarette use increased the risk for lung disease, the researchers also found that there was little evidence that the devices were actually helping smokers quit smoking.
“There’s a strong body of research that suggests that smoking cessation can be achieved with cessation of secondhand tobacco use and that electronic nicotine delivery devices don’t make a real difference,” said David Kessler, the lead author of the report.
“For people who are smoking, they can still quit smoking, but it’s not going to be the same, and the risk that they’re taking is actually much lower.”
The study also noted that the number of deaths associated with secondhand vapor inhalation was much lower than the number associated with tobacco smoke.
“Because secondhand smoking is less dangerous than smoking in general, secondhand aerosol nicotine levels are much lower in the lungs of people who smoke, compared to people who do not smoke,” said Kessler.
That could have an impact on the FDA’s decision on whether or not to regulate electronic cigarettes.
In January, the FDA said it would not allow electronic cigarettes to be sold in the U.S. as long as they contain less than 10 percent nicotine.
However, the agency did not explicitly rule out regulation of e-cigarettes.
The study did note that the study’s authors said that it was possible that electronic devices could be safer than traditional cigarettes.
“While the evidence is not conclusive, the evidence suggests that electronic smoking is safer than smoking,” the study said.
“This conclusion should be shared by the public and the FDA.”
The authors also warned that e-cigarette use can lead to a new generation of kids.
“Although most of the data available suggests that e‐cigarettes are safe and effective in reducing smoking, we know from previous research that e‑cigarette use among adolescents and young adults increases the risk and harms of nicotine addiction and nicotine dependence,” the authors wrote.
“To avoid this risk, the public needs to be informed about the health risks of e‐cigarette use and how it can be managed.”
A recent poll from the American Public Health Association found that 80% of adults believe that e–cigarettes should be regulated like traditional cigarettes, but only 32% believe that the FDA should be doing more to regulate them.