The number of Americans smoking traditional cigarettes is at a decades-long low, but the use of e-cigarettes is rising at an alarming rate.
Studies have shown that one contributing factor for the rise in e-cigarette use is the fact that smoking adults are using them as an aide to quit.
Is this really the best option? Most health care professionals don’t think so.
The safer option?
Since their introduction on the market, e-cigarettes have been touted as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes. Many e-cigarettes look like the real thing – they are similar in size and shape, often glow at the tip when you inhale and produce what looks like smoke.
Yet because they don’t burn, tests show the levels of dangerous chemicals e-cigarettes give off are reduced to only a fraction of what are produced by a traditional cigarette. Instead, a cartridge filled with nicotine, liquid and flavoring is heated by an electronic heating element that produces a smoke-like vapor.
Even though it may sound like a safer option, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool.
"If an e-cigarette helps an individual to quit smoking for good, that's a good thing," CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said during a news conference in March. "But many children are using e-cigarettes and getting hooked on nicotine, and that's an addiction that can stay with you for life. Many adults who think they are going to get off cigarettes by using e-cigarettes are actually continuing to smoke, and that does more harm than good."
‘A tough habit to break’
Ryan Edwards of Charlotte, North Carolina, knows how addictive nicotine can be. He started smoking in college at age 19 and today, at 25, still struggles to kick the habit.
“For most people the addiction is half nicotine and half the act of smoking itself,” he said. “You use it to take breaks, to reward yourself. Before long, smoking a cigarette comes before and follows just about everything you do. It is a really tough habit to break.”
Edwards tried to quit cigarettes “cold turkey” a few times before resorting to electronic cigarettes in 2011.
In her work as a respiratory therapist, Carmen Walser of Novant Health Heart and Vascular Institute in Charlotte said she sees this all too often.
“Unfortunately when you stop smoking it is like dealing with a double-edged sword. You have to fight the physical and mental components of addiction,” she said. “Quitting ‘cold turkey’ happens more than you think would be possible, especially for individuals with tremendous will power or motivation such as being hit with a sudden health diagnoses, but they have to have a plan to deal with the cravings and withdrawal symptoms.”
These days, Edwards has quit smoking, but still hasn’t been able to quit nicotine. “I’m addicted to nicotine gum now,” he said.
Nicotine and the heart
Along with being highly addictive, nicotine has a strong impact on the physical body. It elevates your mood, suppresses appetite and stimulates memory, but it also speeds up your heart rate and raises blood pressure, leading to potentially serious consequences.
Smoking increases a person's risk of developing atherosclerosis, a disease that causes plaque to build up in the arteries, narrowing and hardening them over time and limiting blood flow. Atherosclerosis can cause heart attacks and strokes and can even lead to death.
In a recent study, Brown University scientist Chi-Ming Hai exposed human and rat heart cells to nicotine. After only six hours, he began to see the early signs of plaque beginning to form.
Get help now
While the relationship between nicotine and heart disease requires further study, experts agree that the best thing smokers of any nicotine product can do for their health is to quit.
“Of course you want to speak to your physician,” Walser said, “but there are plenty of FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapy options available over the counter, including the patch and gum.”
Prescription options are also available. Some smokers even find success using alternative therapies including hypnosis and acupuncture.
Walser noted that smokers tend to be most successful in their journey to quitting when they use two or three cessation aids in conjunction with counseling or a smoking cessation group.
“Smoking is one of the most challenging addiction behavior issues and I stress you to throw yourself into quitting with a ‘Rocky’ mentality – utilizing all resources available,” Walser said. “What do you have to lose?”
Novant Health offers smoking-cessation classes. Learn more here.
If in-person programs aren’t for you, QuitLineNC.com and SCTobaccoFree.org offer information on free, confidential, one-on-one support programs available by phone. Call 1-800-Quit-Now (1-800-784-8669) to learn more.