Are E-Cigarettes Helpful or Harmful?

Electronic cigarettes have become commonplace in the past few years, whether people are picking up a new habit or trying to break their old habit of smoking traditional cigarettes.

The products are so new that research on them is still in its infancy. Public health professionals want to know whether these products are harmful to people or whether they can help them cut back on smoking traditional cigarettes, which have long been known to be dangerous to health.

This is the type of pressing health issue that students in Creighton University’s online Master of Public Health degree program address. In the program, they examine the totality of a health issue and how it affects the population as a whole. Evaluating public health concerns from all angles and developing helpful community programs in response aligns with Creighton’s Jesuit values of social justice and service to others.

How e-cigarettes work

E-cigarettes are part of a broader category called electronic nicotine delivery systems, or ENDS, which, in addition to e-cigarettes, include e-cigars, vape pens and hookah pipes. E-cigarettes are powered by batteries and are used similarly to traditional tobacco cigarettes. The devices generally contain cartridges filled with nicotine, flavors and other chemicals. E-cigarettes turn nicotine and other chemicals into a vapor that is then inhaled.1 In May 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it would begin regulating the sale, marketing and manufacturing of these products, just as it already does with traditional cigarettes.2

Because they deliver nicotine without burning tobacco leaves, e-cigarettes may not be as harmful as traditional cigarettes, and they don’t create secondhand smoke. An independent report by the U.K. government in 2015 concluded that e-cigarettes were 95 percent less harmful than traditional cigarettes and can help traditional smokers quit when they have been unsuccessful at quitting using other methods.3

However, e-cigarettes still contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and can damage the heart as well as blood vessels. Because e-cigarettes are relatively new, there is no long-term research to show how this form of nicotine—or the other chemicals included in the products—affects a person’s health over a significant period of time. Some public health professionals are also concerned that “vaping” e-cigarettes will lead users to try other tobacco products or prevent previous smokers from quitting all products.4

Vaping is gaining popularity

What is known is that e-cigarettes are becoming more popular among both teenagers and adults in the U.S. In 2015, e-cigarettes were the most commonly used nicotine product among middle schoolers and high school students, while use of cigarettes and cigars declined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study conducted by the CDC and the FDA found that 5 percent of students in sixth through eighth grade reported using e-cigarettes, while 16 percent of high school students did.5

Three percent of adults use e-cigarettes every day or on some days, compared with 21 percent who use any form of tobacco product, the CDC reports. Younger adults ages 18 to 24 were more likely to try newer products, including e-cigarettes.6

Although e-cigarettes may be helpful as a smoking cessation device, absent more scientific research, the true tradeoffs remain uncertain. In the meantime, public health professionals will be relied upon to influence and oversee e-cigarette policy development in a way that best benefits the public. You can channel your passion and dedication to serving others in your community, along with your interest in health care, by earning a Master of Public Health from Creighton University.