While sales of electronic cigarettes rocket, I ask whether the like-for-like product is worth the potential risks. By Lauren Moore.

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When asked why I still smoke I often quote The Smiths’ lyric “I need to cling to something”. Well, don’t we all? For me, smoking is as much a habitual compulsion as it is a chemical addiction. It’s something for my hands to do; something for my mouth to do. If I’m not physically clinging to a cigarette the Devil will find work for my idle hands and it will usually involve some sort of relentless tapping, or I will accidently find myself clutching a cake. Many people have this sort of compulsion: biting nails, sucking thumbs, overeating and even mindlessly scrolling through Twitter are all symptoms of idle hands and habitual compulsions.

This is where nicotine patches tend to fall down, there’s nothing for the hands to do. Many ex-smokers claim they put on weight after giving up smoking. This is because we maintain the hand-to-mouth compulsion but replace the cigarette with a nice cake or three.

Nicotine inhalers, those small plastic tampon-shaped things, have attempted to replace both the cigarette and the cake while maintaining the all important hand-to-mouth compulsion. However, for me, too much is lacking. There’s no drag, no smoke, no ‘hit at the back of the throat’ to speak of. Essentially the ‘I like smoking’ part of my brain feels cheated, even though I’m getting the same amount of nicotine.

Recently I tried an electronic cigarette. Now there’s a nicotine replacement I could get on board with. It maintains the hand-to-mouth compulsion without the calories of cake. It also mimics the drag of nicotine-laden smoke through the use of vapour, so I get that hit at the back of my throat, and the feeling of inhaling and exhaling a substance rather than just nicotine flavoured air. If it wasn’t for the unrealistic weight of the electronic cigarette, I wonder if the ‘I like smoking’ part of my brain would even notice that I’m not actually smoking!

Unfortunately for me however, electronic cigarettes have not been through the same rigorous testing as their patch and inhaler counterparts. Tests so far have actually discovered some of the same cancer-causing toxins contained in electronic cigarettes that exist in normal cigarettes, albeit in far less quantities*. Nevertheless, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) are currently testing electronic cigarettes so that they can soon be prescribed by UK doctors as nicotine replacements. However, the lasting effects of using electronic cigarettes will not be truly known until we’ve been puffing away at them for a decade or two.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing; after all, tobacco had been popular for around 150 years before evidence began to even suggest that it was harmful. Without rigorous medical evidence electronic cigarette smokers are essentially guinea pigs for the possible harmful effects. The general consensus amongst medical professionals at the moment is that they are the lesser of two evils. However, it’s currently up to the individual to decide whether or not to believe the hype.

*http://www.nhs.uk/news/2013/06June/Pages/e-cigarettes-and-vaping.aspx