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E-cigarettes: Doctors' View: E-cigarette, tobacco smoke enough alike to warrant regulation

What are e-cigarettes? Have you ever seen one? Do you know how they work? Are they as bad for your health as traditional cigarettes?

It is fair to say that three or four years ago these were new questions and we did not know the answers. But now we do, and it is certainly time for you to know — and for our St. Louis County Board of Commissioners to know as they consider a vote to help protect citizens of our county from the “invisible” harm caused by these gadgets if being used indoors.

Details about e-cigarettes and their health effects are well-described in a recent report from the California Department of Health, and even more recent good information on e-cigarettes can be found in the News Tribune’s “Our View” editorial on Friday, headlined, “County up next in quest for clear air.”

E-cigarettes is a good news/bad news story. Are they less toxic than traditional cigarettes? Likely. Are they really safe to use? Not likely.

First, how do they work? With no tobacco or cigarette paper to burn, there’s no smoke. They really are electronic gadgets with several sections, one with a small battery, one with a small amount of fluid usually containing some nicotine as well as flavoring and other chemicals, and a high-temperature chamber that converts the liquid into an aerosol or fog to be inhaled by the user (an action called vaping) and then exhaled where it is readily inhaled by those around the user.

What is in this aerosol emitted by the e-cigarette? At least 10 chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, including nicotine, formaldehyde, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, according to the report. It’s not what you or your favorite teenager should be exposed to.

Nicotine, a key ingredient in the aerosol, is highly addictive. Of course, that is why so many users of traditional cigarettes said for years that they could quit whenever they wanted but usually never could.

We should all wonder why the three major tobacco companies purchased start-up e-cigarette companies. What do they know that we do not? One thing is this: Kids who start using purportedly safer e-cigarettes often switch and become traditional smokers or, even worse, dual smokers who use both e-cigs and traditional tobacco cigarettes. They are then addicted to nicotine for decades. Is that what the big tobacco companies are banking on?

Our elected county leaders soon will vote on this simple question: Should e-cigarette use indoors be regulated as a public health hazard just like traditional tobacco smoke? That is, no smoking in indoor places such as worksites, bars, restaurants, stores, arenas, etc.

The city of Duluth and many other communities in Minnesota already have answered this question in the affirmative: Yes, e-cigarette aerosol and tobacco smoke have enough in common to warrant being regulated in the same way under the Minnesota Clean Air Act.

In short, keep them outside.

Terry Clark and Mary J. Boylan are doctors from Duluth. Joseph Bianco is a doctor from Ely.

Weigh in on Tuesday

The St. Louis County Board has scheduled a public hearing for 9:40 a.m. Tuesday in the county courthouse in downtown Duluth as commissioners consider two actions: banning e-cigarette use in public places where smoking already is prohibited and forbidding tobacco “sampling” in licensed tobacco shops.

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