Janie Heath, PhD

Janie Heath, PhD

Several weeks back, “Saturday Night Live” spoofed the increasing ubiquity and purported safety of e-cigarettes by touting its own fictitious product — “e-meth.” The skit, which included “Breaking Bad’s” Jesse Pinkman (actor Aaron Paul), offered e-meth as a sensible smokeless alternative to crystal meth itself — a completely far-fetched and ridiculous claim.

It was also quite laughable — until you realize that e-cigarette companies are hawking their product as a “safe cigarette” in much the same way.

It’s no joke. And e-cigarettes are uniquely poised at the moment to either be regulated by the government as tobacco products should be or to enjoy looser, less strict regulation.

Companies that make e-cigarettes — battery-operated sticks made of plastic or metal that release vapor, rather than smoke, to deliver nicotine in a warmed mist of diethylene glycol, propylene glycol and carcinogenic nitrosamines — are counting on the latter. These companies hope that e-cigarettes — already a $2 billion a year endeavor — might just save a dying U.S. tobacco industry.

Using the swaying power of actors Stephen Dorff and Jenny McCarthy, companies such as Blucigs — which offers nicotine delivered in flavors from pina colada to peach schnapps, appeal to youngsters who gravitate toward the exploding market of flavored cigarettes — these companies are ramping up for a fight. Promises like “You can smoke at a basketball game if you want to” and “We’re all adults — it’s time we take our freedom back” offer smokers and would-be e-cigarette buyers a chance to tap into the bygone era when smoking was cool and its deadly health effects were not known.

The thing is, today we know better.

What we don’t know is the science as to whether e-cigarettes are a safer alternative or just more of the same. As a professional nurse, I wager the latter.

The American Lung Association is very concerned about the potential health consequences of electronic cigarettes, as well as claims that they can be used to help smokers quit.

There is no government oversight of these products. And, absent oversight by the Federal Drug Administration, there is no way for the public health and medical community or for consumers to know what chemicals are actually contained in e-cigarettes — or what the short- and long-term health implications of using them or being around them might be.

The American Lung Association is calling on the Obama administration to propose meaningful regulation of these products to protect to public health.

There are roughly 250 different e-cigarette products on the market today. Based on evidence so far, there’s nothing safe about them —not even as a gateway to cessation. In the FDA’s own research on e-cigarettes from 2009, lab tests revealed detectable levels of toxic cancer-causing chemicals, including an ingredient used in anti-freeze, in two leading brands of e-cigarettes and 18 various cartridges. Other analyses have found formaldehyde, benzene and tobacco-specific nitrosamines, a carcinogen, in e-cigarettes’ emissions, pointing out the poisons in secondhand exposure.

This why it’s urgent for the FDA to immediately begin its regulatory oversight of e-cigarettes, which would include ingredient disclosures by manufacturers. While there is certainly more to learn, it’s clear there is a great deal to be concerned about — especially in the absence of any sort of oversight.

As a former smoker myself, I understand all too well the hope for a safe and evidence-based way to break the habit — but e-cigarettes just are not the way. There is no magic bullet; quitting smoking is incredibly hard to do. Nicotine’s the reason. And at present, there is no evidence supporting e-cigarettes as the best way to kick the habit.

Americans have the freedom to decide, of course, what they do with their bodies — and knowing what we know about the debilitating diseases and deaths faced by many former smokers, I think we will choose to kick the e-cigarette habit before it garners a foothold. E-cigarettes might seem to tout a pathway to tobacco-less freedom, but they entangle individuals in the same poisons as their smoke-filled grandfathers.

We’re all adults here: It’s time to take back our freedom — and choose health for ourselves, our children and communities.

Janie Heath, PhD, is the Thomas A. Saunders III Professor of Nursing and associate dean for academic programs at the University of Virginia School of Nursing.