The debate surrounding the health benefits versus risks of electronic cigarettes has been heated in recent months. Medical News Today recently reported on a study by researchers at University College London in the UK, which suggests the devices reduce the use of conventional cigarettes. But a new article published in the journal Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology claims there is "not enough evidence" to suggest this is the case.
Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are battery-operated devices that simulate tobacco smoking. They consist of heating elements that are activated through suction by the user. This heats a nicotine solution, turning it into a vapor that can be inhaled.
There is no doubt that the use of e-cigarettes has rocketed in recent years. However, there has been much controversy regarding their safety.
E-cigarette manufacturers say the devices are safe and can be used as smoking cessation aids. In the recent study by University College London researchers, the team found that 20% of individuals who tried to quit tobacco smoking using e-cigarettes succeeded.
But other research has challenged the use of e-cigarettes as a tool to quit smoking. Earlier this year, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found no link between e-cigarette use and reduced use of conventional cigarettes.
'Not enough evidence' to support benefits of e-cigarettes
In this latest article, lead study author Dr. Andrew Nickels - of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Mayo Clinic and a fellow of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology - and colleagues take a similar stance.
Researchers say there is "not enough evidence" to suggest that e-cigarettes should be used as smoking cessation aids.
"Despite the apparent optimism surrounding e-cigarettes and their purported therapeutic role in smoking cessation, there just simply is not enough evidence to suggest that consumers should use e-cigarettes for this purpose," says Dr. Nickels.
The researchers also note that dual use of both regular cigarettes and e-cigarettes is a "cause for concern." They point out that people who use e-cigarettes in public and smoke regular cigarettes at home continue to expose children and asthma sufferers to secondhand smoke.
In addition, the researchers stress that e-cigarettes have not been around long enough for sufficient testing to have been conducted. Therefore, there may be long-term health risks that, at present, are unknown.
Some studies have hinted at the potential health risks. Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on two studies by researchers from the Roswell Cancer Park Institute in Buffalo, NY, which found that e-cigarettes expose others to "thirdhand" smoke - defined as leaving nicotine residue on indoor surfaces.
A 2012 study from the University of Athens in Greece suggested that e-cigarettes may cause harm to the lungs immediately after use. Furthermore, a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that the number of e-cigarette-related calls to US poison centers have soared, from one call per month in 2010 to 215 per month this year.
E-cigarettes 'should be subject to regulation'
At present, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate e-cigarettes. But due to current lack of evidence supporting the health benefits of e-cigarettes, the researchers say the devices should be subject to FDA regulation.
They add that nicotine - regardless of how it is delivered to the body - is a form of drug exposure, and the device itself is a drug delivery system. Both of these components, the researchers say, fall under the FDAs scope.
But it seems the FDA may finally be responding to numerous calls for e-cigarette regulation. Last month, they announced proposals to regulate the devices, alongside cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels, waterpipe/hookah tobacco and dissolvables that are not already regulated.
If the proposals are finalized, it will mean that such products would be banned from being sold to under-18s. In addition, manufacturers of the products would need to register with the FDA and disclose product and ingredient listings, and only make direct and implied health claims for products if the FDA confirm there is enough scientific evidence to support them.
"Science-based product regulation is a powerful form of consumer protection that can help reduce the public health burden of tobacco use on the American public, including youth," says FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg.