Taking in the Toxins

By Olivia Kwitny

 As Harry* ’13 was sitting in a Mel’s Diner booth around midnight, ordering a cheeseburger and vanilla shake, he reached down into his pocket to grab his electronic cigarette to show his friend.

“I jokingly started the e-cig in the restaurant and took a big hit. It wasn’t like it was a real cigarette, right?” Harry said.

An electronic cigarette is a battery-powered device that provides inhaled doses of nicotine by way of a vaporized solution. Although some think they are less harmful than traditional cigarettes, the Food and Drug Administration’s preliminary findings in 2009 showed that e-cigs contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals.

“These devices dispense a vapor that contains nicotine, which is the addictive chemical in tobacco smoke,” pulmonologist Dr. Ron Greeno (Tyler Greeno ’12), Chief Medical Officer of Cogent Healthcare, said. “They are not approved by the Federal Drug Administration for safe use to dispense nicotine (while nicotine gum and lozenges have been). At least one study showed the vapor to contain toxic and carcinogenic chemicals leading the FDA to issue a warning against their use until they can be studied further.”

“The e-cig is fun because you can smoke it anywhere legally, even indoors,” Harry said. “But I don’t do them that much because I’m starting to learn that they are bad for you.”

“Level of safety or risk has not been determined yet but is being studied,” Greeno said.

According to WebMD Health News, cigarette smoking causes one in five deaths in the United States each year. People who have tried, and failed, to quit smoking by using conventional approaches, such as the nicotine patch or counseling, or non-conventional approaches, such as acupuncture, are now beginning to look past the mainstream methods in the direction of alternatives. However, these alternatives, which include e-cigarettes, can be just as bad as the cigarettes themselves, the National Cancer Institute claims.

With more than 50 million americans smoking, seven million of those people have turned to smokeless tobacco, according to WebMD Health News. Smokeless tobacco, otherwise known as chewing tobacco, is a tobacco that is chewed or sucked rather than smoked. Nicotine in the tobacco is absorbed through the lining of the mouth.

However, smokeless tobacco is no safe alternative. There are at least 28 chemicals that cause cancer that have been found in smokeless tobacco, according to the National Cancer Institute. Of these 28 chemicals, the most harmful ones are tobacco-specific nitrosamines, which are formed during the growing, curing, fermenting and aging of tobacco. Smoking tobacco can cause oral cancer, esophageal cancer and pancreatic cancer in addition to heart disease, gum disease and oral lesions other than cancer, such as leukoplakia.

According to the National Cancer Institute, users of smokeless tobacco can become addicted. In fact, the nicotine stays in the blood stream longer than it does for cigarettes.

A panel of experts convened by the National Institutes of Health stated that the “range of risks, including nicotine addiction, from smokeless tobacco products may vary extensively because of differing levels of nicotine, carcinogens and other toxins in different products.”

Another alternative people turn to is water pipe smoking, otherwise known as hookah. With a variety of flavors, such as apple, mint, cherry, chocolate and coconut, it is not a surprise that usage has been on the rise. However, in an attempt to escape the health hazards of nicotine, people are wrongly assuming that smoking hookah is a safer way to go, WebMD Health News indicates.

“Hookah is a social thing. It’s fun to get a group of friends together and meet at the Gypsy Cafe in Westwood. My favorite flavor is a mix of blue mist and white peach. Part of the appeal is trying new flavors,” Susie* ’11 said.

Water pipe smoke contains nicotine, carbon monoxide and carcinogens, and may contain more amounts of tar and heavy metals than cigarette smoke. Hookah smoking has been linked to lung cancer, heart disease and pregnancy-related complications.

“Smoking tobacco with a hookah is no safer than smoking cigarettes and in fact has some additional risks. The water in the hookah does not filter out any of the toxins and carcinogens (cancer causing chemicals) in the tobacco. In fact it has been shown that hookah smoke has higher levels of certain harmful chemicals like carbon monoxide than cigarettes. In addition if hookah pipes are shared there is the added risk of infection,” Greeno said.

“I like hookah [because] it’s social and I go out with friends to do that. And there are so many flavors,” Harry said.

Due to the mode of smoking, puffing, and the length of smoking sessions, hookah smokers absorb higher concentrations of toxins than cigarette smokers do, the Center for Disease Control states.

“It causes lung cancer and emphysema. [Hookah] is also a leading cause of heart disease and stroke,” Greeno said.

The charcoal used to heat the tobacco produces high levels of carbon monoxide, metals and cancer-causing chemicals. Even after it has passed through water, the smoke produced by a hookah contains high levels of toxic compounds, including carbon monoxide, heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals. In addition, irritation from the tobacco juices can increase one’s risk of oral cancer, the CDC states.

As a safer alternative, Greeno states that “the combination of behavioral therapy aided by a ‘quit smoking product’ increases the chances of quitting smoking from about five percent with no product to 30 percent with a product. Safe and effective alternatives include nicotine patches, nicotine lozenges, nicotine gum and nicotine inhalers. Some pulmonologists also use certain antidepressants or other medications but those who need a prescription from a physician need to be under a doctor’s care with the treatment tailored to the patient.”


*names have been changed