After years of public smoking regulation, it may be odd to see a student exhale a cloud of what looks like smoke in the middle of a classroom.
However, the vapor produced by electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, may be harmless and could change the way society views smoking.
Thomas Brandon, a USF professor of psychology and oncologic sciences and director of the Tobacco Research and Intervention Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, said he is optimistic about the potential of e-cigarettes as a safer alternative.
“If someone is a current smoker and switches to e-cigarettes, it’s a reasonable assumption that there’ll be far less risk,” he said. “If you had to design a product to kill people, you would probably come up with cigarettes.”
According to a New York Times article, the e-cigarette industry sold $1.7 billion worth of product in 2013, doubling 2012 sales. According to a Forbes article, 40 percent of users are millennials.
While there are no known health benefits known to e-cigarettes, Brandon said no current evidence suggests they are lethally dangerous.
“It has the potential, if everything works out perfectly, to save hundreds of thousands of lives in America,” he said.
Brandon said roughly 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit, but tobacco is one of the most addictive known drugs.
“Nicotine withdrawal symptoms are very unpleasant and are halted the moment you have one cigarette,” he said. “Cravings exist when under stress or around other smokers. There’s a risk of relapse for a long time.”
Instead of combusting tobacco, e-cigarettes vaporize liquid consisting of glycerin, artificial flavoring and nicotine. Although nicotine is also found in tobacco, Brandon said it is not the primary concern.
“We’re OK with giving smokers nicotine if it helps them quit,” he said. “It’s not the most dangerous thing in cigarettes.”
The carbon monoxide produced through combustion, as well as the tar and chemical additives, found in cigarettes are what could lead to cancer.
However, Brandon said until the potential health effects caused by e-cigarettes are known, the research community’s opinion will be divided.
“I see the glass half full; other researchers see it half empty.” he said. “The research community is still trying to catch up.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet established a regulation for e-cigarettes, though Brandon said the FDA is expected to release a statement and open public discourse in the next few months.
“There needs to be more research into the liquid used in e-cigarettes, but all the ingredients are safe as far as we know,” Brandon said. “There’s a chemical that aids in the vaporization of nicotine. I think it’s most common use is to make artificial smoke during rock concerts.”
Gregory Bennett, a junior majoring in industrial engineering, said e-cigarettes could not replace the feeling of a tobacco cigarette.
“The reason I like normal cigarettes is because there is a sense of ending to it,” he said. “An electronic cigarette doesn’t satisfy.”
There is also a social element, he said. USF smokers view the designated smoking areas as community gatherings.
“It’s a way to take a break and talk,” he said. “Smokers are the friendliest people on campus.”
Even if future research proves e-cigarettes are safe, Brandon said the health community would continue to be skeptical due to social concerns.
“Kids who weren’t smokers may start using e-cigarettes and get addicted,” he said. “It also may be a gateway drug. They may start on e-cigarettes and move to a more powerful hit from smoking.”
There is another concern of “renormalizing” smoking, Brandon said.
“Progress has been made around the world in making smoking unacceptable in social groups,” he said. “The whole act of smoking is no longer considered sexy, it’s actually considered undesirable.”
Brandon said the skepticism of the health community is warranted, as methods to reduce the harm of tobacco have proved frivolous before.
“We’ve been fooled in the past with filters on cigarettes,” he said. “The early filters were asbestosis and ended up causing more harm.”
Brandon said he is nonetheless hopeful about the potential e-cigarettes have in providing a safer alternative for smokers, but Bennet said most people he knew who converted to e-cigarettes eventually went back to smoking tobacco.
“They miss actually pulling a cigarette out of their pocket and actually smoking it,” he said. “An electronic cigarette doesn’t replace that, there’s something missing.”
Nonetheless, Bennett said e-cigarettes could be useful for those determined to quit, but still an unequal substitute for the pleasure derived from cigarettes.
“It’s not that easy. Electronic cigarettes won’t make you quit,” he said. “You have to really want to quit.”
Even if e-cigarettes are just as addictive, Brandon said the concept of addiction might not be vice in itself.
“We’re accepting of addiction of caffeine because it doesn’t cause much harm. If I swung a dead cat, I would probably hit someone addicted to caffeine,” he said. “I rather not see people exhaling vapor around me, but I’d rather see that than see 500,000 people in America die every year from tobacco.”