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E-Cigarettes: A Chance to Kick the Habit Or A Health Crises in the Making?

Fifty years after the landmark Surgeon General report that exposed the lethal effects of lighting up tobacco cigarettes, U.S. health officials and nicotine addicts are grappling with a new controversy: an invention we haven’t even begun to understand.

Concern Number 5: Kid Addicts

Kevin Spacey, as Frank Underwood in House of Cards, lounges on the floor of his apartment and offers his wife, played by Robin Wright, a hit of an e-cigarette. “You should try it,” he says. “It’s addiction without the consequences.”

That’s how the devices are often viewed: as risk-free addiction. But e-cigs may have adverse effects not only on smokers, but on a future we haven’t even begun to see.

“[E-cigarettes] are being made, marketed, and sold in ways that are very similar to how cigarettes were 40 or 50 years ago,” says Tim McAfee, M.D., director of the CDC’s Office of Smoking and Health. “There are TV ads, you can buy them at malls from unlicensed vendors. It’s not even against the law in half our states for children to buy e-cigs.”

In fact, in a new study in JAMA Pediatrics, young e-cig users were more likely to become tobacco smokers—progressing from e-cigs to analogs—and to be heavier smokers than kids who’d never touched an e-cig.

Several manufacturers already sell products that health officials see as clearly aimed at kids, such as bubblegum and cotton-candy flavored e-cigs. While bigger manufacturers like Logic and NJOY, who, for the most part, want to work with the FDA, have avoided these explosive allegations by making only tobacco- and menthol-flavored offerings, smaller distributors could be attracting a new generation to nicotine addiction. According to the CDC, 90% of smokers get addicted to smoking before age 18; and about 1.8 million kids tried e-cigs in 2012—up 10% from the year before.

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“Years ago the tobacco companies targeted children because at that age it’s easy to addict people,” says Schluger. “Tobacco companies have a very large investment in the e-cigarette business.” Indeed, Lorillard, which owns the Newport brand, acquired Blu eCigs in 2012, and, more recently, Altria Group Inc., which makes Marlboros, bought Green Smoke. If Big Tobacco is looking for an investment into future addiction, they’ve likely found it in e-cigarettes.

“We don’t want to start a new generation of nicotine addicts,” says  Carmona, speaking on behalf of NJOY. “We want to use this to make tobacco obsolete. Many of my colleagues feel that we shouldn’t be using e-cigs; we should just make sure no one smokes. Well, we tried that for half a century, and we’ve plateaued out.”

This year, 50 years after the hallowed Surgeon General report on the dangers of smoking, a new Surgeon General report came out stating that more scientific study on e-cigarettes is needed.
“Further research and attention to the consequences as well as regulatory measures will be necessary to fully address these questions,” it states. While that may sound anticlimactic, it’s the first time e-cigs have been mentioned in such a report.

The Bottom Line (If There Is One)

Theoretically, just under a decade from now, if Patrick Holdridge doesn’t relapse, his risk of dying of lung cancer should be sliced in half. And in 20 years, his chances of developing pancreatic cancer should be the same as if he’d never smoked. But because the long-term effects of e-cigarettes aren’t known, guarantees just aren’t available.

Jimmy Fallon, in the twilight of his tenure on Late Night, summed it up nicely in a bit on New Year’s resolutions. “Pro: Switching from regular cigarettes to e-cigs,” he announced. “Con: They’ll still kill you, but the mystery of how is half the fun!”

Inhaling anything but oxygen into your body is a risk. Smoking cigarettes has always been like gambling with dice weighted in the house’s favor: You can play, but you can’t win. For nonsmokers, vaping could be a seat opening up at that table.

But for ex-smokers like Holdridge, there’s a sense that they’ve finally beaten the house.

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