Kentucky lawmakers have turned their attention to electronic cigarettes, but local doctors say their health impact is still hazy because of a lack of conclusive studies on the devices.
The rising popularity of e-cigarettes has brought conflicting opinions in the medical community. Some physicians support the devices as alternatives to smoking traditional cigarettes. But the lack of any oversight and the potential to lead nonsmokers on the path to addiction worries others.
"I think they're a double-edged sword," said Dr. Peter Locken, a radiation oncologist at Baptist Health Paducah. "If they're used in the short term to wean off cigarettes, I think they're a wonderful thing."
On the flip side, he said, the present lack of regulations in the manufacturing process means e-cigarette users could be exposing themselves to other toxins. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates only e-cigarettes that are marketed for therapeutic use.
E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that use a heating element to vaporize solutions that often include nicotine. Dr. James O'Rourke, a cardiac and thoracic surgeon at Lourdes hospital, said they're likely safer for the lungs and heart than traditional cigarettes. They may lack the toxins, such as carbon monoxide, that burning paper produces.
"The bottom line is no one really knows the long-term effect (of e-cigarettes)," he said. "(But) any crutch you can use to get off cigarettes is going to be better than the alternative."
Others say that until more research is done, smokers should use therapies such as gum, patches or medication to quit.
"It's not an approved cessation (aid) by any means," said Jamie Smith, cancer control specialist with the Kentucky Cancer Program.
Health professionals also worry that the array of flavor options e-cigarettes offer, as well as vendors' claims that they're healthier than regular cigarettes, could lead more youngsters to experiment with the devices and become addicted. The Centers for Disease Control reported that use of e-cigarettes more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, increasing from 4.7 percent to 10.2 percent.
Even if e-cigarettes don't serve as a gateway to conventional tobacco use, O'Rourke said, the nicotine they contain is dangerous to developing hearts and nervous systems.
"Nicotine has ... toxic effects for growing children," he said. "It's a product that's addictive, like caffeine, and we tell our children not to drink energy drinks."
Two bills now in the Kentucky legislature - Senate Bill 109 and House Bill 309 - respond to this concern, effectively banning the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors.
Republican Sen. Paul Hornback, a tobacco farmer from Shelbyville, sponsored SB 109, which defines vapor products and alternative nicotine products. Under the bill, retailers would face the same penalties for selling e-cigarettes to minors as they would for selling tobacco products to anyone under 18. It cleared the Senate 36-2 earlier this month and is now under review by the House Licensing and Occupations Committee.
HB 309, sponsored by Louisville Democrat Joni Jenkins, would re-define tobacco products to include e-cigarettes. The House has yet to vote on the bill.
Local representatives say they're in favor of restricting e-cigarettes, especially when it comes to younger users.
"I think we need to regulate (e-cigarettes)," Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-Paducah, said. "They've been marketing them as a way to quit smoking, but actually I think that's rather deceptive. It's just an effort to get people addicted to e-cigarettes rather than tobacco cigarettes."
Watkins added that he generally supports measures that would discourage young people from starting to smoke, whether they opt for traditional or electronic devices.
Republican Richard Heath of Mayfield also voiced support for ban. But he and Watkins doubt that much will become of either bill this legislative session.
"We've only got one week left, and it just doesn't seem like it's a priority for anybody," he said.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.
Kevin posted on: Sunday, March 23, 2014 11:00 AM
Title: Money Grab not Public Health
On the effort to restrict e-cigs, 'Republican Sen. Paul Hornback, a *tobacco* farmer from Shelbyville, sponsored SB 109' that says it all right there.
As for Watkins.... has he ever been a smoker? I (stupidly) smoked for 25+ yrs and since I started using a vaporizer I havent had a real smoke for almost 6 months. No more coughing, no more stinky clothes and hair, far cheaper than real cigs, and a much happier Wife because of it. Once again Government overreacts driven by big money interests.