Chicagoans help on electronic cigarettes study

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Electronic cigarettes. They’re lighting up the market place. Some users believe they are safer. Others say the vapor-producing devices have helped them kick their tobacco habit. But the government wants to know more and is turning to Chicago researchers to find the answers.

A weekday morning brings a steady stream of customers to 21 Century Smoking – an electronic or “e” cigarette store in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Some are regulars stocking up on supplies. Others are newcomers – ready to explore the offerings. Employee Katie Galan — an e-cigarette user herself — rattles off a menu of options. First, choose your nicotine level.

Katie Galan: “Twenty-four is a little higher than your average cigarette, 16 is a little lower.”

Then, if you’d like, add a flavor. Next, select the color of your stick – the battery portion that looks like a real cigarette.

Katie Galan: “We can make it look like the cigarette you’re smoking now or we can make it funky and blue.”

Adam Provenzano started using the device about a year ago.

Adam Provenzano, E-cig user: “I quit for a while and started back up again, smoking about a pack a day. Since I started this, I haven’t had a cigarette which is a good thing. I know that we don’t know all the facts on what’s in it yet, but I do know it’s a lot safer than regular cigarettes.”

But are they? It’s a burning question the U.S. government can’t answer. Unlike tobacco products, e-cigarettes aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In 2009, the FDA warned consumers about potential health risks after analyzing nicotine cartridges from two leading brands. One sample was found to contain diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze. Several other samples were found to contain carcinogens, including nitrosamines.

21 Century Smoking imports the majority of its liquid nicotine from China and lists the ingredients on the company’s web site. As the safety debate drags on, researchers here in Chicago have been charged with a different task.

Robin Mermelstein, UIC health behavior researcher: “We know very little about e cigarettes. They are increasingly popular. So there is a desperate need for us to learn more about why people are using them, what they’re getting out of them and what people think about them.”

University of Illinois at Chicago health behavior researcher Robin Mermelstein and her team have been awarded a $2.3 million federal grant to investigate how young adults use alternative smoking products.

Robine Mermelstein: “People might use it as a type of a replacement and transition all the way from traditional combustible cigarettes to these non-combustible e cigarettes. But, if people just use them and it prolongs your dependency and makes it harder to quit, we don’t know. So we need to do more research on understanding are they a good way to stop smoking, that’s a good question.”

There’s no question many e-cigarette users are happy they’ve transitioned from conventional cigarettes to vapor. For them, the benefits are clear.

Katie Galan: “I can smell my shampoo again, my car is smoke free. Not only do you get your nicotine, you get to have something between your fingers, you get to pull it to your mouth … that’s half the battle.”

To learn more about UIC’s e-cigarette study, check out:

People interested in learning more or participating in the study can call 312-996-4528

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