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E-Cigarettes: Friend or Foe for the LGBT Communities?

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Working in tobacco control sometimes elicits interesting reactions from people. Some try to hide their smoking. While I certainly appreciate not being near the smoke itself, I've got great empathy for smokers. In fact, since most smokers have already tried to quit, they're much more likely to be fellow fighters against tobacco than non-smokers. Sometimes they ask me how to best quit and I'm happy to tell them (hint, call 1-800-QUITNOW). These days everyone's asking me something new: What about e-cigarettes? The shortest answer is "they could be helpful for a few, but we all worry about our youth."

First, if you're not familiar with e-cigs, they are battery-powered imitators of old-school cigarettes, designed to deliver nicotine, flavor and other chemicals through vapor inhaled by the user. Most of them have a swag little electronic light at the tip to make it seem more like an old-school cig. Some now have other names like e-hookah to avoid any cigarette associations. The claim is here's a no-combustion device to get your nicotine fix, great for cessation and great to smoke in places where cigarettes are banned.

There is one study supporting the effects of e-cigs in helping people quit smoking but now another study is out contravening it. Considering how toxic cigarette smoke is, we all applaud anything that helps reduce the amount of cigarette smoke in the air. But if you're trying to use e-cigs as a cessation device it's a bit dicey right now because they're unregulated, so the amount of nicotine you get in each dose varies, and sometimes does not match the advertising. It's commonly known that it only takes about two weeks to kick the nicotine addiction of smoking, but anyone who's quit will tell you, it's the social habit of smoking that draws you back again and again. I'm not sure how putting a cigarette replacement in your mouth helps you kick that social habit -- sounds to me like it's just perpetuating it. Plus there is a new study showing other toxic chemicals in the vapor. To top it off, there's no real science on the long-term effects of inhaling nicotine vapor. So while I'm willing to bet it's better than inhaling tobacco smoke, that's like saying I bet it's better than inhaling truck exhaust. Nicotine is so toxic, poison control centers just issued an alert about high numbers of calls on accidental exposure. Just touching the liquid is enough to cause vomiting and ingesting as little as a teaspoon of some of the liquid nicotine concentrations can be fatal. I hope people set a higher bar for their own cessation journey.

The real problem is, as anyone who's visited a vaporium can see, it's not a cessation game. Vaporiums and e-cigs are all about enticing, and particularly enticing young people. Wander into your local vaporium belly up to the "bar" and you'll be shocked to see how many vaporiums look like the lovechild of a hip coffee shop and a candy store. I'm not sure exactly which adult Marlboro user would switch to cotton candy flavored nicotine cartridges, or banana nut bread, or cherry limeade. Sounds to me more like flavors I'd find at a little league game. To make it worse, these products are easily available online and many states aren't yet doing anything to restrict access to minors. Data show LGBT youth continue to smoke at rates much higher than their non-LGBT counterparts and the number of youth experimenting with e-cigs is rising rapidly... the very last thing we need is to have some fancy new gadgetry on the market enticing LGBT youth to start using a highly addictive drug to deal with the stress of stigma against us all.

We pass on smoking down through the LGBT generations socially. I've always called it an STD for us, a socially transmitted disease. So I also worry about adult e-cig use. Every time you "light up" you're perpetuating the huge LGBT cigarette culture, all of us laughing and having fun and hanging out, with cigarettes in our mouths.

We already have cessation aids that deliver you nicotine in controlled regulated doses, you can find those on every drugstore shelf. Nicely, there's not one gummy bear or watermelon flavored nicotine patch, spray or gum. So while e-cigs might help a few in quitting, I say the big picture on e-cigs for the LGBT communities is we need to think of our youth and "beware of the wolf in sheep's clothing."