Electronic cigarettes

Are e-cigarettes a healthy alternative to regular cigarettes?
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01.Smoke and mirrors

Electronic cigarettes

Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, are battery-powered devices with liquid-filled cartridges that, when heated, create an inhalable mist. The liquid is flavoured to taste like tobacco or menthol or other more exotic flavours – for example, fruits, mint or chocolate – and may or may not contain nicotine.

Supporters argue that replacing regular cigarettes with e-cigarettes is a better way for people to get their nicotine. Where smoke from combustible cigarettes contains 4000 different chemicals, including more than 60 carcinogens, proponents claim e-cigarettes are healthier and that e-cigarettes contain fewer toxins. Furthermore, second-hand smoke, which affects smokers and non-smokers alike, is negligible and likely safer.

Detractors, however, argue they do more harm than good. For starters, they normalise smoking. After decades of working to stigmatise smoking – with a high degree of success – health authorities are concerned these cigarette-like devices will once again make smoking ‘cool’. There’s also concern that they could entice children to start smoking, especially with kid-friendly flavours such as strawberry and bubblegum on offer.

Their safety is questionable. Nicotine is a highly toxic chemical, and overseas studies have found the amount of nicotine delivered in e-cigarettes may be more or less than the amount stated. Leakages are also a risk – nicotine absorbed through the skin can make people very sick and even kill them. While nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products, such as gum and patches, have been rigorously assessed for efficacy and safety, no assessment of electronic cigarettes has been undertaken. Therefore, the quality and safety of electronic cigarettes are not known.

As to whether they help people quit smoking, some studies have found they’re more, or as, effective as conventional NRT products, while others have not. Other studies have found that people who haven’t quit have at least replaced cigarettes either entirely or partially with e-cigarettes, with perceived health improvements.

Can they be sold in Australia?

Nicotine cannot be sold or supplied in Australia except in cigarettes and other tobacco and registered NRT products. As such, retailers can’t legally sell e-cigarettes in local stores, and there are fines for selling it illegally.

So Australians who buy nicotine for e-cigarettes usually buy it online from overseas in small (“personal use”) quantities, and that’s not currently prohibited under Australian Customs law. However, some state laws override this, including Queensland and Victoria, where possession of nicotine liquid is currently banned.

As for smoking nicotine-free juices, some states also ban the sale of products that look like cigarettes, including food and toys, and a recent case in WA upheld this law in relation to e-cigarettes.

What’s the story overseas?

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration is planning to regulate e-cigarettes, requiring registration of products and warning labels stating they contain the addictive substance nicotine, and banning sales to under-18s. This proposal has occurred in the context of an increase in complaints about health effects, including difficulty breathing, headache, cough, dizziness, sore throat, nose bleeds, chest pain and other cardiovascular problems.

Similar regulations will take effect in the EU from 2016, including an advertising ban and the stipulation that products be childproof.

CHOICE verdict

While smoking e-cigarettes appears to be safer than regular cigarettes, at least in the short term, there is not enough long-term research on their effects. For current non-smokers especially, it’s best to avoid them until more is known about their safety.

If you’re trying to kick the cigarette habit, stick with conventional NRT products or another approved method, such as counselling. Call Quitline on 13 78 48 for more info, or visit quitnow.gov.au


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