Are e-cigarettes any safer for my child than tobacco?

Q: I don’t want my teenager to start smoking cigarettes. I know many kids are using e-cigarettes instead. Are they safer?

A: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy just released a report addressing this  issue.  The report finds that e-cigarettes have surpassed traditional cigarettes as the nicotine delivery system of choice for most adolescents. The data show that more than a third of our youth have tried e-cigarettes. 

And they do seem to think the devices are safer; in a recent article in the journal Pediatrics, almost half the young people surveyed viewed them as less harmful and addictive than traditional cigarettes. 

According to the Surgeon General’s report, however, the nicotine vapor in e-cigarettes can harm the developing brain, predisposing youths to addiction to multiple substances, mood disorders, and learning and attention problems.  Studies released in just the last two months from Pennsylvania State University and the University of California appear to validate Murthy’s assertion, finding that e-cigarettes are a potential “gateway drug” to other substances, including traditional cigarettes, marijuana, alcohol, and crack cocaine. 

Therefore, the current recommendation is to discourage young people from smoking anything — including e-cigarettes.  There is still a lack of extensive and solid research on those devices, so many questions remain about their risks — such as long-lasting effects on lung health or increased risk of lung cancer — as well as their potential benefits — such as whether they can help people stop smoking altogether.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ website offers a great resource on how to talk to the young people in your life about e-cigarette use; for more information, visit
e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov.

Charmaine Chan, D.O., is a family medicine physician at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.