More and more Americans are smoking electronic cigarettes, sometimes drawn by new and exotic flavors, while researchers continue to study whether the devices are safe.
Flavored tobacco cigarettes were banned in 2009 because of fears that their appeal would lure young people to start smoking. Today, more than 7,000 flavors are available in the so-called e-cigarettes and that number is growing.
E-cigarettes provide nicotine without the tar of tobacco that blackens lungs and causes cancer. They have been marketed as a way to help people stop smoking tobacco cigarettes. More than 40 million Americans still smoke cigarettes with tobacco, and an estimated 70 percent of them say they want to quit.
Rather than burn tobacco, e-cigarettes heat up a liquid which turns to a vapor that the smoker inhales. They run on a lithium battery.
Manufacturers in the $3 billion e-cigarette industry say they do not appeal to children, but some are skeptical that there is any difference in terms of flavors attracting new smokers. Further, some express concern that e-cigarettes will become so popular that they will make smoking acceptable again, which they say would be a step backward.
So far Congress has not regulated e-cigarettes, though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this year proposed regulations for them. The proposed regulations, which do not address flavors, respond in part to concerns about the dangers of liquid nicotine when inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through skin. Estimates are that one tablespoon could cause death for an adult, and one teaspoon for a child. Some e-cigarette devices also are believed to release other toxins when vaporized.
The consensus among health researchers is that we need much more information before they can declare e-cigarettes safe. They point to studies that show these products can cause diminished lung function, inflammation in airways, and cellular changes.