E-cigarettes (e-cigs), battery-operated devices that deliver nicotine and flavorings to users through vapor, are growing in popularity despite scientific debate about their possible health risks. Already a billion dollar industry in the U.S., the e-cig market is projected to overtake traditional cigarette sales in the next decade.
The worst health consequences of smoking, including lung cancer, heart disease, and brain problems, are associated with inhaling tar and chemicals produced by burning tobacco. But it is the addictive properties of nicotine that keeps people physiologically hooked on cigarettes, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). E-cigs provide nicotine. And the fact that millions of smokers are turning to e-cigarettes instead of other available nicotine replacements like nicotine gums and patches offers clues about why smoking cigarettes is so addictive in the first place.
There’s one big difference between e-cigs and other nicotine replacement systems. Electronic versions of cigarettes are designed to give users the feel and look of actually smoking — from the way an e-cig is held between your fingers to how you put the device to your lips and inhale. By simulating the cigarette experience so well, e-cigs might reactivate the habit in ex-smokers and those trying to quit, according to Harvard doctor Harvey B. Simon, MD.
In fact, there’s evidence just seeing people with e-cigs can trigger the craving to smoke. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication found that looking at commercials featuring people inhaling e-cig vapor (vaping) or simply holding e-cigs sparked the urge to light up in both current and former smokers.
"These findings are especially relevant to ongoing health and policy discussions, as they indicate that it is not just the health impact of e-cigs and vaping themselves that must be considered,” University of Dayton communications professor Teresa Thompson, PhD, commented. “The interrelationship between tobacco smoking and media representations of the 'e' versions examined in this study make clear that portrayal of actions that just look like smoking has an effect on viewers who smoke or used to smoke."
How can seeing someone vaping in a commercial encourage cigarette addiction? The perceived “cool factor” clearly has an appeal, as do the available flavors for e-cigarettes, especially for young people, and can spur them to try e-cigs for the first time.
“The advertising is certainly working very hard to make (e-cigarette smoking) glamorous and sexy, and the numbers that we’re seeing certainly suggest that for a lot of young people, it’s a new, trendy, cool thing to try,” Robin Koval, CEO of the anti-smoking nonprofit group Legacy told Fox News. “They think it’ll be easy for them to quit later on, but once your brain gets that taste of nicotine, it actually won’t.”
Young people who are already regular cigarettes users can also be triggered to smoke more when they see people around them using e-cigs, according to a University of Chicago study.
"It's important to note that there could be effects of being in the company of an e-cigarette user, particularly for young smokers. For example, it's possible that seeing e-cigarette use may promote more smoking behavior and less quitting," said researcher Andrea King, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
June 18, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA