Although the long-term health effects of electronic cigarettes are unknown, a
new survey finds people who use the devices think of them as a safer alternative
to tobacco and a means to break the smoking habit.
Researchers from the UK surveyed about 1 400 e-cigarette users on the
Internet, 76% of whom said they started using their devices to replace
cigarettes entirely. A much smaller percentage said their goal was to quit
smoking or to improve their health.
One researcher who has studied e-cigarette users said the findings allay
fears that people are using the devices to get more nicotine on top of what's
already in tobacco cigarettes, instead of for smoking cessation.
"This study really indicates people are using them specifically to try to
quit smoking or try to get off cigarettes. This dual-use idea is simply not a
tenable idea anymore," said Boston University's Dr Michael Siegel, who was not
involved in the new research.
E-cigarettes were first introduced in China in 2004. The battery-powered
devices let users inhale nicotine-infused vapours, which don't contain the
harmful tar and carbon monoxide in tobacco smoke.
Lynne Dawkins and her colleagues from the University of East London write in
the journal Addiction that there are currently over 100 brands of e-cigarettes,
and 3.5 million devices were sold in 2012.
Despite the devices' growing popularity, the researchers say, little is known
about who uses e-cigarettes and why.
For the new study, they created an internet survey that was accessible from
the websites of two e-cigarette manufacturers from September 2011 to May 2012.
The survey took about 15 to 20 minutes to complete.
Overall, 1 123 ex-smokers and 218 current smokers from 33 different countries
took the survey. About 16% of participants were from the US and another 77% were
70% were men. About three quarters of respondents said they started using
e-cigarettes as a "complete alternative to smoking," and 22% said they started
using the devices for "other reasons" - including stopping smoking (7%), for
health reasons (6%) and to get around smoking restrictions (3%). Some 86% said
they had either not smoked cigarettes for several weeks or months since using
the e-cigarette or that the amount they smoked had decreased dramatically.
The researchers also found that the majority of people responding to the
surveys felt their health had improved since using the devices.
"Most people reported great health benefits. Their cough was reduced and
their breathing was improved," said Dawkins, who added that the benefits are
most likely from people smoking fewer cigarettes and not an effect of the
devices or vapours.
Long-term effects of
Still, Dawkins said that more research is needed on the long-term effects of
Siegel said there's no question that e-cigarettes are safer than smoking, but
there are concerns over some of the vapours' ingredients - including propylene
glycol, which irritates airways, and formaldehyde, which is known to raise lung
and nasal cancer risk when it's inhaled.
Despite the survey participants' feeling that their breathing eased with
e-cigarettes, past research suggests the vapour has at least temporary negative
effects on airways.
In 2012, a group of researchers said it found signs of airway constriction
and inflammation within five minutes of people inhaling vapours from
But that study only included a small group of people and the researchers
couldn't say if those reactions actually lead to health problems.
For example, the participants who answered the survey were people who visited
the manufacturers' websites and may not be representative of all e-cigarette
users and their motivations.
Dawkins' group notes that some answers to the survey are also based on the
participants' memory and that could lead to overestimating the devices'
"For the general public, they need to be better informed about what we know,
what we don't know, what the advantages to using them are and what the
disadvantages are," said Dawkins, who has received funding from e-cigarette
companies to attend conferences in the past.