Illustration by Chris Gash. Breaking up is hard to do. Just ask a smoker. Jackie Kotlarek, 44, has tried everything to kick her 26 1/2-year smoking habit, from going cold turkey to undergoing hypnosis. But any attempts to live a life apart from her cigarettes were short-lived. That is, until she swapped her pack of cigarettes […]
Illustration by Chris Gash.
Breaking up is hard to do. Just ask a smoker.
Jackie Kotlarek, 44, has tried everything to kick her 26 1/2-year smoking habit, from going cold turkey to undergoing hypnosis. But any attempts to live a life apart from her cigarettes were short-lived. That is, until she swapped her pack of cigarettes for an e-cigarette.
“When I started [in August], I started at 12 milligrams,” Kotlarek says, referring to the strength of nicotine in her e-cigarette, a level common for people who are used to smoking “light” cigarettes.
“Today, I’m already at a six or a zero.”
Most e-cigarettes work like this: A battery inside the device heats a cartridge of liquid (called “juice” or “e-juice”) that contains nicotine and flavoring. The heat turns the liquid into a mist-like vapor the user inhales. Those in favor of e-cigarettes argue that “vaping” allows smokers to wean themselves off nicotine and is safer than smoking because e-cigarettes don’t burn tobacco.
In fact, a recent study published in the Spring 2014 Aurora Health Care Journal of Patient-Centered Research and Reviews concluded e-cigarettes may help improve a smoker’s health by reducing the short-term negative health effects of smoking.
“I had a smoker’s cough, and that was completely gone within two weeks of using the e-cigarettes,” Kotlarek says.
Deepening Kotlarek’s belief in her smoker-to-vaper conversion is the success she sees family members experiencing. Her husband, also a longtime smoker, switched to e-cigarettes three weeks after she did. Her sister followed a month later. Neither has had a cigarette since.
But one study and a few testimonials aren’t enough to convince many in the medical community that e-cigarettes are a safe or effective way to kick the habit.
“It’s a very new product, and we have no research about the long-term effects,” says Dr. Megan Piper, associate director for research at the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention.
Hon Lik, a pharmacist in China, invented e-cigarettes in 2003, but they didn’t appear in the United States until around 2007, and didn’t gain popularity until the last couple years.
“Remember, we didn’t know a lot about the dangers of cigarette smoke back in the 1940s, either,” cautions Dr. David Rein, pulmonologist at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center. “Our respiratory system is built to inhale air, and this isn’t air. Also, e-cigarettes are not regulated at all, so it comes down to we simply don’t know enough about their actual contents to say whether they are or aren’t safe.”
Compared to the 4,000 chemicals – including 43 known carcinogens and 400 additional toxins – found in traditional cigarettes, the handful of ingredients in e-cigarettes appears to be relatively safe. They include water, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, nicotine and flavoring in enough candy-inspired varieties to make Willy Wonka jealous. How safe those ingredients are when their method of entering the body is altered, says Piper, is still one big question mark.
“All the ingredients are ingestible,” she says, “but we don’t know the consequences of them going into the lungs.”
Doreen Kluck, a smoker for more than 35 years before switching to vaping in June, feels torn between the success she’s experienced and the questions surrounding safety.
“I’m still leery about the whole thing because I don’t really understand if it’s harming me, and if so, in what way,” she says.
Kluck shares Rein’s concern that e-cigarettes provide another way of delivering nicotine to the marketplace, especially after she witnessed her daughter, a nonsmoker, use an e-cigarette.
“At the time, she didn’t know it contained nicotine. She just liked the flavor,” Doreen Kluck says, adding that the attractive variety of flavors and hip vapor lounges might entice young people and nonsmokers to pick up an e-cigarette or nicotine habit.
“I think all the way around there needs to be more education for the people that do it and don’t do it,” she says. “From what I’m told, it’s safer than smoking. But then again, I’m getting that information from the people selling the stuff, so I don’t know. I still have a lot of questions.”