E-Cigarette Use Doubles Among Young People

We talk with the CDC’s Tim McAfee about e-cigarettes and why more young people are giving them a try.

We talk with the CDC’s Tim McAfee about e-cigarettes and why more young people are giving them a try
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It seems like the health risks of e-cigarettes are still unclear, or at least hotly debated. Do you think this ambiguity helps sell e-cigarettes – as in, "We're not positive how these affect your health, so don't worry about it?"

I'll say this: Starting in the 1950s, one of the main ways the tobacco industry was able to successfully sustain the tobacco epidemic for so long was by sewing uncertainty. What they would say is, "Well we're not certain that smoking causes cancer. Sure, some scientists say it does, but other scientists say it doesn't." So I think this is a very important thing for us to realize over the next two to five years, because we're uncertain of how e-cigarettes are going to play out among adults.

Is it confirmed if e-cigarettes are better, worse or comparable to conventional cigarettes?

We're not saying that e-cigarettes are worse than real cigarettes – far from it. But, we don't know what's going to happen with e-cigarettes in terms of adults and smokers. We don't know how much they're going to end up actually helping smokers permanently and completely transition off conventional cigarettes, which are the No. 1 cause of death and disease in our country. That would be a good thing, but we don't know if that's going to happen. There's no evidence. The companies have not gone to the [Food and Drug Administration] and asked for approval to be used as a formal method to help quit smoking.

So, if anything, there's potential for e-cigarettes to help smokers ween off traditional cigarettes?

We do acknowledge that, if used as a compete substitution for cigarettes by adults who are already regular, frequent, daily smokers – in the circumstance that those people would actually do a complete substitution – we would expect that they would be significantly lowering their risk for disease. But in order for that to be done as an actual marketing claim, or certainly to make the claim that e-cigarettes would help people to quit, there's a process that drug manufactures have to go through to make that kind of claim.

The important thing to realize is that, for the most part, that's not what's happening in adults. What's mostly happening is that adults are doing dual use – they're smoking e-cigarettes in certain circumstances, and in other circumstances, they're continuing to smoke cigarettes. We need to learn a lot more about how this is happening. Unless it's leading them to completely quit cigarettes, we do not think people are materially benefitting themselves by substituting a few e-cigarettes.

Smoking is killing half a million Americans [per year]. If you're a smoker and you want to improve your health, the thing you need to do is completely quit smoking cigarettes. The good news is that we have a bunch of things that we know work in that respect. There are seven FDA-approved medications; there are multiple forms of counseling, delivered by physicians, over the telephone and via the Internet that all work. It's not like we have no other options for quitting.