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Are electronic cigarettes safe?

While e-cigarettes help smokers avoid the dangerous tars and ash found in tobacco products, they still pose a health threat due to chemicals found in nicotine.
BY STEPHEN PRESCOTT, M.D., AND ADAM COHEN For The Oklahoman Modified: June 3, 2013 at 4:32 pm •  Published: June 4, 2013

Adam's Journal

Over the past few months, I've done quite a few double takes in restaurants.

In establishments that are otherwise smoke-free, I've caught sight of people taking drags on things that look suspiciously like cigarettes. Except these little white sticks don't emit the expected plume of smoke. Instead, they give off a tiny wisp of something that looks like steam, which immediately disappears. They don't seem to generate any of the tobacco smell that used to permeate my clothes every time I visited a bar or smoky restaurant.

My 14-year-old son — and subsequent Internet research — informs me that what I'm seeing are electronic cigarettes. Apparently, these e-cigarettes contain a small reservoir of liquid nicotine solution that is vaporized to form an aerosol mist.

So do e-cigarettes pose a health risk to those who “smoke” them? And what about the rest of us; do we need to worry about second-hand vapors?

Dr. Prescott Prescribes

As you probably know, traditional cigarettes consist of ground tobacco leaves rolled in paper. When lit, cigarettes release smoke that contains a combination of chemicals. One of those chemicals is nicotine, which occurs naturally in tobacco plants.

Nicotine has stimulant properties that include the release of epinephrine, which is like adrenaline. Although nicotine is what causes cigarette smokers to become physically addicted, the chemical itself may not increase the risk of damage to the lungs.

With traditional cigarettes, that danger is tied primarily to the tars and ash found in tobacco smoke. Early research on whether e-cigarettes can still damage the lungs is mixed.

E-cigarettes contain no tobacco — just nicotine — which is why you're seeing them in environments that are tobacco-free. But just because they're tobacco-free doesn't mean e-cigs are safe.

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