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The Truth About E-Cigarettes

Electronic cigarettes have become a big business in the last five years, and it's easy to see why. Compared to cigarettes, e-cigarettes are a more flavorful, cheaper, and far safer way for smokers to get the nicotine to which they're addicted. But the recent rise in e-cigarette use has generated exaggerated safety concerns about the devices. Media outlets — and science journalists — have done a poor job of investigating the concerns about e-cigarettes, to the point of misleading their readers and promoting junk science.

The latest example of this misrepresentation came last week, when National Geographic's website ran an article that claims that while e-cigarettes are effective for weaning smokers off of traditional tobacco products, they may pose health risks of their own.

Scientific innovation scares some people. Whether it's genetically modified crops, vaccines, or e-cigarettes, the public's irrational fear is usually propped up by the phrase "research is urgently needed," or some variant of it. In the midst of quoting a researcher about the "urgent need" to investigate health concerns about e-cigarettes, National Geographic fails to acknowledge that none of the clinical studies conducted about e-cigarettes has found that they pose any serious health risk.

Citing University of San Francisco tobacco researcher Stanton Glantz, the National Geographic piece claims that e-cigarettes could be harmful, "because they contain a number of toxic chemicals and ultrafine particles in addition to nicotine," and that, "secondhand e-cig vapor could be harmful." However, the article doesn't mention research supporting either point (Glantz's opinion is enough, apparently). In reality, the Food and Drug Administration, no friend to e-cigarette manufacturers, has concluded that the devices contain far fewer carcinogens than cigarettes.

Of course, no health scare piece is complete without some reference to the risk posed to children. According to a Centers for Disease Control study mentioned by National Geographic, the number of U.S. middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes doubled between 2011 and 2012. It's a scary statistic, but it's hardly the whole story. For one thing, trying an e-cigarette once or a handful of times is different from regular use. The CDC statistics only tell us how many students tried the devices, as Boston University researcher Michael Siegel points out. Siegel also notes that while Glantz seems concerned that e-cigarettes can lead teenagers to a lifetime of smoking conventional cigarettes, 90% of the students in the CDC survey started out as conventional cigarette smokers, and tried e-cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco.

Scientists should continue investigating e-cigarettes, but rather than wildly speculating and panicking about the possible risks associated with the devices, we should focus on the data we already have about them. And that evidence indicates that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to tobacco.

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