Public health and tobacco industry officials passionately discussed the potential benefits and risks of expanded e-cigarette use Wednesday during a joint legislative hearing at the state Capitol.
Electronic cigarettes, commonly referred to as e-cigarettes, are devices that simulate smoking and satisfy some of the same cravings in consumers. They work by using a heating element to vaporize a liquid solution that normally includes nicotine.
While speakers disagreed on many things, they agreed on one: E-cigarette sales should be prohibited to minors.
Dr. Joel Nitzkin, a public health physician and senior fellow in tobacco policy for the R Street Institute, argued that getting people to switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes has great potential to save lives.
R Street is a nonprofit public policy research organization that supports free markets. It receives some funding from at least one tobacco company, Nitzkin acknowledged.
While both cigarettes and e-cigarettes normally contain the addictive chemical nicotine, “it is the toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke, when inhaled deeply into the lungs, that kills people,” Nitzkin said.
Nitzkin contended people can lower their risk of obtaining potentially fatal tobacco-attributable illnesses by more than 98 percent by switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes.
Such a reduction would be important because the U.S. Surgeon General has estimated that tobacco will cause about 480,000 deaths this year in the United States.
“Is it likely or is it possible that we'll find out 15 or 20 years from now that there was some unintended adverse effect … (caused by e-cigarette use)?” he asked. “We cannot guarantee that will not happen, but from everything we know, it seems exceedingly unlikely.”
Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, urged caution.
“I'm not here to tell you that electronic cigarettes are good. I'm not here to tell you that electronic cigarettes are bad. I'm here to tell you, we don't know,” he said.