Some believe the electronic alternative to tobacco could help save hundreds of thousands of lives while others believe they are an unsafe option that glamorizes smoking - GTG investigates

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While a puff of a cigarette may seem fairly harmless, the consequences can and often are very real and tragically serious. Indeed out of the UK’s estimated 9.4 million adult smokers, approximately 100,000 of them will die this year. Throughout the entire 20th century tobacco use has caused over 100 million deaths worldwide, and if current trends continue, it is estimated to kill over 1 billion people in the 21st century. Most ironically however, smoking is widely accepted as the single most preventative cause of death in the world.

Given these extremely shocking and distressing statistics, it’s no wonder that the invention of the e-cigarette in China in 2003 caused tidal waves of hope in their potential capability to reduce tobacco dependence and smoking related deaths. However, with their decorative and appealing designs and their somewhat unknown chemical contents, they’ve also faced much discontent and controversy from varying medical bodies. To help make a judgement call of our own GTG caught up with Naturopathic Iridologist  Rachel Boardman  to decipher whether e-cigarettes were truly our friend or foe.

First launching in the UK in 2007, e-cigarettes are battery operated devices that aim to simulate regular cigarettes. They operate by heating nicotine and other chemicals that are inhaled - when the user sucks, the liquid nicotine is vaporised and absorbed through the mouth, and what looks like smoke is in fact largely water vapour. How then are they an improvement from a regular cigarette? While nicotine is the addictive substance in tobacco, essentially it is the many other chemicals in cigarettes that are responsible for smoking-related diseases. Electronic cigarettes deliver nicotine without the vast majority of these other chemicals, and it is for this reason that organisations such as the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence have indicated that electronic cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco based ones.

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Since their release seven years ago the e-cigarette market has expanded quickly. A survey by the charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) estimated that 700,000 people in the UK were using e-cigarettes last year, with that number reaching one million in 2013. Following this increase experts have have also agreed that e-cigarettes have had an undeniably positive impact on their ability to wean smokers off their tobacco dependence. A study carried out by The Smoking Toolkit discovered that electronic cigarettes were overtaking the use of nicotine products such as patches and gum as an aid to quitting smoking. It also found that the proportion of smokers who gave up smoking in the past year had increased and smoking rates in England were continuing to drop. "The dramatic rise in use of electronic cigarettes over the past four years suggests that smokers are increasingly turning to these devices to help them cut down or quit smoking,” says Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health Significantly.

However, for those against the introduction of e-cigarettes the problem lies not with their ability to decrease smoking rates, but with their safety and regulation and in particular their potential to glamorize the image of smoking amongst young adults and children. “We've come so far into another generation where most teenagers see smoking as a pariah habit and yet the manufacturers of e - cigarettes have designed them to look like a futurist cigarette,” says Naturopathic Iridologist Rachel Boardman. “They’re electronic, they light up and you can even get different flavours including one that mimics sweets. To my mind these e-cigarettes may appeal to a whole new generation that would not usually consider smoking a regular 'smelly' cigarette but would try 'vaping' instead.”

What’s more, medical bodies such as the British Medical Association are worried that the more people start using e-cigarettes, the more it will normalise the act of smoking something which people view to be entirely ‘safe’. While e-cigarettes claim to be technically ‘healthier’ than smoking tobacco, “they still have the potential to be highly addictive given their nicotine content, which unfortunately may then lead as a gateway for people smoking actual cigarettes,” says Rachel. Unlike patches and gum, e-cigarettes are not regulated like medicines, meaning there are no rules about the purity of the nicotine in them.

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So what is the overriding opinion? The simple answer is nobody quite knows yet. “It’s a difficult argument because whilst the e- cigarette would seem to be a solution, we’re yet to fully understand the long-term effects from their use simply because they haven't been around long enough,” says Rachel. The World Health Organisation has even gone as far to state that e-cigarettes are 'illusive' as the chemicals in them have not yet been disclosed or properly tested.

While e-cigarettes continue to remain a largely undiagnosed remedy Rachel advises addressing the reason's you started smoking and also treating and supporting the symptoms of giving up smoking, with methods such as as herbal remedies, nutrition, counselling and acupuncture. “A cleansing nutritive herb such as Red Clover infusion with Chamomile & Lemon Balm will help to support the nervous system and is perfect for supporting withdrawal symptoms,” says Rachel. “In addition make sure to consume antioxidant-rich food, foods rich in Beta - carotene and supplements in vitamins A, C & E with minerals Zinc & Selenium. It’s also important to note that smokers giving up tobacco crave carbohydrates, so make sure to have more nutritive foods close at hand including, lean proteins, vegetables, fruit, whole grains, sunflower seeds & pulses.”