Quitting smoking is one of the most important things that smokers with COPD or asthma can do for their health. Yet for many, it's also be one of the biggest challenges they face. Rather than giving up tobacco completely, a growing number may be turning to e-cigarettes, a recent study by Harvard researchers suggests.
E-cigarettes resemble ordinary cigarettes, but they're battery-powered and produce vapor rather than smoke. They are still tobacco products, however. The liquid they're filled with typically contains nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals.
E-cigarette use is rising sharply
The Harvard study included more than 68,000 U.S. adults who took part in a national survey from 2014 to 2015. By the second year of the study, 14 percent of all adults said they had tried e-cigarettes at least once. To put that figure in perspective, just 2 percent of U.S. adults had ever used e-cigarettes in 2010, based on earlier research.
Diving deeper into the data, the researchers looked at e-cigarette use by people with chronic illnesses. Among current smokers, people with a chronic illness were more likely to use e-cigarettes than those who were healthy. Smokers with certain conditions, including COPD and asthma, were particularly likely to have tried e-cigarettes.
The researchers note that people with these lung diseases are often highly motivated to give up cigarettes. Smoking is the most common cause of COPD, and it's a frequent trigger for asthma attacks. Having seen the consequences of smoking firsthand, people with these conditions may hope that e-cigarettes will help them quit or be a healthier substitute.
More questions than answers
Unfortunately, scientific evidence to back up this hope is lacking. A 2016 Surgeon General's report concluded more research is needed on the health effects of using e- cigarettes, often referred to as vaping. The report says some of the chemicals that may be found in e-cigarettes—including nicotine, carbonyl compounds, and volatile organic compounds—are known to be harmful. The risks associated with vaping these chemicals are unclear.
Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would start regulating e-cigarettes. This will allow the FDA to begin reviewing factors such as the ingredients, design, and potential health risks of these products. That oversight process is still being phased in, however.
What lung health experts say
For now, it's unknown whether switching to e-cigarettes is a safe and effective way to stop smoking. The FDA has not approved any e-cigarette as a smoking cessation aid. Until that happens, the American Lung Association says it doesn't support using e- cigarettes for this purpose.
Fortunately, there are several other options available. If you're a smoker with COPD or asthma, talk with your health care team about programs and products to help you quit. Options shown to be helpful include counseling, nicotine replacement products, and non-nicotine smoking cessation medicines.
Looking for additional information and support? These toll-free quitlines connect callers from across the United States with trained smoking cessation counselors:
800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669; central access number for quitlines operated by each of the 50 states)
877-44U-QUIT (877-448-7848; run by the National Cancer Institute)