How safe are e-cigarettes?

Georgia State launches $19 million study on tobacco’s latest trend
Illustration by The Red Dress

What’s the truth about e-cigarettes? Georgia State University’s School of Public Health aims to find out. The school and its partners will receive $19 million over five years—the largest grant in the university’s history—from the FDA and the National Institutes of Health to create one of fourteen Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science. The research will be led by Michael Eriksen, dean of GSU’s School of Public Health. A global anti-tobacco crusader, he testified before Congress while director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health and was an expert witness on behalf of the Department of Justice against tobacco companies. Eriksen, the lead author of The Tobacco Atlas, discussed how GSU plans to use its record-setting award.

We’ve spent billions on tobacco research; what’s different now? We are hoping to find answers that will make a real, practical difference in people’s lives. This is an opportunity to focus on something that is hugely important and that kills more people than anything else in our society. More than 400,000 people die per year because of smoking.

What will Georgia State’s part of this research be? We’re focused on these novel products like e-cigarettes and hookahs. We don’t know whether these products will be panaceas or problems that could get more people addicted to nicotine. We will be doing research to see how people perceive the products, what factors go into making decisions to use them; and we will be providing the evidence to make the proper regulatory decisions. It’s all about having scientific, objective evidence as opposed to marketing campaigns from the tobacco companies that are developing alternative products. If you eliminate smoke, is it better? It may be better, but is it safe?

Hasn’t the war against tobacco been a great success? Over the past forty to fifty years, we’ve reduced by half the number of smokers. However, more than 40 million Americans continue to smoke. What’s changed is that tobacco companies have been found guilty in the court of public opinion, so they’re shifting from the traditional way they’ve done business to nicotine products that are sucked on or chewed or inhaled.

Are kids latching on to these products? The CDC study found that the use of e-cigarettes among teens doubled between 2011 and 2012. They can be flavored with chocolate or strawberry and can be advertised because they’re not considered to be tobacco products. Google “Jenny McCarthy e-cigarettes.” You’ll see sex appeal and sophistication are being replayed now as they were forty years ago.

This article originally appeared in our January 2014 issue under the headline “Where There’s No Smoke.”