Are smokeless tobacco, waterpipes and e-cigarettes safer than smoking?

These products still contain nicotine, a highly addictive drug, and other potentially harmful chemicals.

Alternatives to smoking such as smokeless tobacco, waterpipes and e-cigarettes, may seem at first glance to be less harmful that actually smoking cigarettes. However, all of them contain nicotine, a highly addictive substance associated with cardio-vascular disease, cancer, birth defects and other serious health problem. In fact, although some manufacturers have marketed these products as safer, the American Lung Association (ALA) cites studies where products tested contained significant levels of harmful chemicals and toxins.

Most people are probably familiar with smokeless tobacco as it has been widely used in the United States for many years. It is available in various forms include chewing tobacco, snuff, snus and dissolvable tablets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), note that use of these products increases the risk of cancer especially of the mouth and throat, can result in gum disease and tooth decay, and may form white spots called leukoplakia on the tongues, gums and linings of the mouth.

Waterpipes, also known as hookahs, have been used for over four centuries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), use of a waterpipe introduces greater quantities of carcinogenic and other toxins that does smoking cigarettes. Infectious diseases (tuberculosis, hepatitis, herpes, etc.) can also be spread if the mouthpiece is shared and not properly cleaned

What exactly are electronic, or e-cigarettes? Sometimes called a personal vaporizer (PV) or electronic nicotine delivery system (ENDS), they are a battery-operated system that delivers nicotine, flavor and other chemicals via an aerosol, or vapor, that the user inhales. The act of using an e-cigarette is commonly referred to as “vaping”. Because e-cigarettes are a relatively new item, available in the United States since 2006, less research has been conducted on their health risks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), by law, regulate cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco. Currently, e-cigarettes are the least regulated of alternative tobacco products, with no warning labels required and no minimum age limit for sales.

The FDA notes that adverse effects of e-cigarette use being voluntarily reported by users, health officials, and other concerned individuals. Hospitalizations have occurred for health problems including pneumonia, congestive heart failure, disorientation, seizure and hypotension. They do caution readers that it has not been definitely determined at this time whether these illnesses were caused by e-cigarette use or could possibly be related to a pre-existing medical condition.

Another unknown is the effects secondhand emissions from e-cigarettes may have on individuals in close proximity to a person who is “vaping”. Some health officials have expressed concern that use of these alternative products by youth may serve as a gateway to regular cigarettes. Not only are they are easily obtained online and via mall kiosks, marketing techniques target youth by offering candy flavors and glamorizing e-cigarette use.

Research and studies focusing on all of these products are ongoing. If you currently are a smoker or use one of these alternative products and want to quit, you are urged to call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or speak to your doctor. Michigan State University Extension offers a wealth of information on their Food & Health web page that can assist you in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

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