US — Quitting smoking and losing weight consistently top New Year's resolutions lists

In an effort to stop smoking, a growing number of smokers are turning to electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, to help them quit once and for all. Although e-cigarettes are not currently regulated, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is weighing regulations in a market that estimates suggest could be as big $5 billion in 2015. But are these devices safe? Or even effective?

There is mixed information regarding the efficacy of e-cigarettes to help a person quit smoking. Some studies point to e-cigarettes as a good method of smoking cessation, while others say there's limited evidence to support those claims.

E-cigarettes typically contain liquid nicotine, which is inhaled as vapor. The vapor resembles smoke and can mimic the look and feel of smoking traditional cigarettes. But e-cigarettes typically do not contain any of the additional chemicals, such as tar and other potentially toxic ingredients, found in traditional cigarettes. Nicotine cartridges for e-cigarettes also come in various concentrations and flavors, and smokers can even purchase nicotine-free replacement cartridges. Much like users of nicotine patches or chewers of nicotine gum, e-cigarette smokers can gradually lower their nicotine doses over time.

The American Lung Association currently has not approved any e-cigarette as a safe or effective method to help smokers quit. They cite a study that estimates there are nearly 500 different e-cigarette brands today with varying levels of nicotine and the possible presence of other chemicals. These e-cigarettes are unregulated. The ALA says there is a great deal more to learn about these products before they can be recommended as a safe and effective way for smokers to wean themselves off of smoking.

E-cigarettes may contain additional chemicals besides nicotine. Studies have found detectable levels of chemicals used in antifreeze in two leading brands of e-cigarettes. Formaldehyde and benzene have been detected in some e-cigarette emissions. Other studies have found secondhand emissions from e-cigarettes can prove harmful to nonsmokers.

While some organizations do not endorse e-cigarettes, others state that they shouldn't be ruled out just yet. A 2014 study by British researchers and published in the journal Addiction found people were 60 percent more likely to succeed in quitting smoking using e-cigarettes compared to would-be quitters who tried a nicotine patch or gum. Background information in the report suggests that, since the e-cigarette vapor only contains nicotine and not tobacco smoke, e-cigarettes may help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Although some e-cigarettes may contain harmful byproducts, toxicity tests indicate they are safer than regular cigarettes. Some health experts believe the benefits of quitting traditional cigarettes outweigh the risks posed by e-cigarettes.

The American Heart Association agrees. In a policy statement released in August 2014, the American Heart Association said physicians shouldn't discourage e-cigarette use as a last resort to stop smoking.

"If people cannot quit at all and have tried everything in the field, we would not discourage them," said Aruni Bhatnager, the statement's lead writer. "It's not something we would suggest."

The AHA recommends e-cigarettes only if smokers refuse or are intolerant of other options.

People who desire to quit smoking may look to e-cigarettes to help their fight. Although the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes remains open to debate, cannot be proven, many former smokers feel e-cigarettes played a significant role in helping them to quit smoking once and for all.

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