You’ve got to love the Science and Tech section of the Daily Mail. Their long headlines and bold, bullet point subheadings save you the hassle of having to read an entire article. However, if you were to trek through a piece like the recent one claiming e-cigs are just as addictive as tobacco cigarettes, you may find some flaws in their writer’s logic.
The Truth About Addiction: Mind Over Matter?
The article refers to a recent study published in Chemical Research in Toxicology, which looked at the composition of various e-liquids. Researchers found that the nicotine present in the e-liquids they tested were of the free-base form, which is more easily metabolized by the human body than nicotine when bound to another chemical. The Daily Mail article and the study abstract mention others that have compared nicotine delivery via e-cigs and tobacco cigarettes, but they fail to note that all of those studies have suggested e-cigs are less effective at delivering nicotine than their tar tainted brethren.
Perhaps “Some e-cigs contain free-base nicotine” isn’t as eye-catching as “E-cigarettes are just as addictive as the real thing,” but does the latter claim hold merit? Answering this question requires a better understanding of addiction.
The Daily Mail article attributes cigarettes’ addictive properties solely to the drug nicotine. Many drugs are addictive, but there are also many clinically recognized addictions that do not involve drugs: Gambling, video games, sex, shopping and food addictions are just a few examples. Traditional wisdom holds that there are two types addiction. The first is physical, or substance related, in which the body develops tolerance to a drug and experiences withdrawal when suddenly deprived of the drug. Psychological addiction, on the other hand, is spurred by environmental cues such as a gambling addict’s excitement when seeing flashing lights on a slot machine.
Over the past few decades of research, scientists have been led to believe that other factors heavily influence addiction. People who compulsively use drugs, gamble or overeat usually do so to cope with emotional stress. This explains why many addicts can switch from one addictive behavior to another; the person isn’t dependent on the action or the substance per se but rather the relief from stress the addictive action provides.
This explains another study referenced in the Daily Mail article, which found that giving smokers who had no intention of quitting lower doses of nicotine didn’t help them quit smoking. Nicotine isn’t the sole driver of addiction; quitting requires a little effort from the smoker.
Studies of E-cig Addiction
A 2014 study conducted by the Penn State College of Medicine and published in the peer-reviewed Nicotine & Tobacco Research journal assessed the addictive nature of e-cigs using online surveys of ex-smokers who are current vapers. Survey respondents reported formerly smoking an average of 24 cigarettes every day and currently having about 24 vape sessions a day. On the surface, it appears that their addiction is the same, but further digging revealed some significant behavioral and psychological changes.
The e-cig users reported waiting longer for their first vape of the day compared to when they smoked, and fewer participants reported waking up in the middle of the night for a nicotine fix. The majority of participants also said their cravings for e-cigs paled in comparison to their former cravings for cigarettes, and most reported feeling less irritable when they can’t vape compared to the overwhelming anxiety they felt when they couldn’t smoke. Head researcher professor Jonathan Foulds stated, “The pattern was really very clear… e-cig users feel less addicted.” Foulds attributed the difference in addictiveness to the difference in how e-cigs are used compared to regular cigarettes. “When you smoke cigarettes, you smoke it in one go. With e-cigs, they take two or three puffs, and then wait 10 or 15 minutes and have another two or three puffs.”
Research on nicotine use for medicinal purposes, such as treating Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, haven’t documented withdrawal symptoms following nicotine treatment. A French study conducted in 2009 also found that the combination of nicotine and other chemicals found in tobacco significantly increased hyperactivity in lab rats, which resulted in a higher rate of self-administration when compared to the self-administration of nicotine alone.
The Verdict: E-Cigs and Nicotine
To be fair to the Daily Mail, the article does bring light to one vital issue: The nicotine levels discovered in the tested e-liquids were inconsistent with the product labels. This blight is reflective of a lack of industry standards and oversight, and it should serve as a warning to consumers that they should only buy e-liquids from reputable companies. The results of a small scale study should not damn the whole industry, but it does suggests that some tighter e-cig regulations would be better for the public. Nonetheless, research continues to suggest e-cigs are by no measure as addictive as tobacco cigarettes.