Through all that smoke, Diana Aguilar admits she was among the millions of electronic cigarette smokers. Even though she hadn’t smoked in years, she just had to try them. After a few years of being hooked on them, she learned that e-cigarettes could be hazardous to her health and went cold turkey.

A través de todo ese humo, Diana Aguilar admite que estaba entre los millones de fumadores de cigarrillos electrónicos. A pesar de que no había fumado en años, solo tenía que probarlos. Después de algunos años de estar enganchada a ellos, se enteró de que los cigarrillos electrónicos podrían ser peligrosos para su salud y tuvo síndrome de abstinencia.



BY JOE ARCE

In-depth special report


Even though she hadn’t smoked in more than 20 years, Diana Aguilar saw the advertisements and just couldn’t resist the allure of electronic cigarettes. The colors. The flavors. The lower cost. What wasn’t to like?


She picked one up for the first time eight years ago, and that was it. It was love at first puff.


“I just got hooked on them. I wouldn’t go anywhere without them,” said Aguilar, 53. “You can smoke them practically anywhere. I had to have one with me at all times.”


Aguilar justified her newfound love of e-cigarettes – also called vaporizers or vape pens -- by telling herself that it was a safer, healthier alternative to real cigarettes packed with tobacco, nicotine, and a host of other deadly chemicals.


Not so, according to Dr. Stephen Thornton, MD, a toxicologist and director of the Poison Control Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center.


“Electronic cigarettes aren’t safe,” Thornton said to KC Hispanic News. “If I asked you whether you’d rather jump off a 10-story building or a 1-story building, I’d rather not jump off either. You can say it’s better for your health than cigarettes, but does that make it safe? At the end of the day, it’s the nicotine that you’re addicted to. It’s a very powerful chemical. The jury is very much still out. We’re still trying to determine what is safe and what isn’t.”


Though the e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, they do contain varying levels of nicotine, he added. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nicotine can harm brain development not just in teens but also in young adults, whose brains don’t become fully developed until well into their mid-20s.


A longtime lack of regulation by the Food and Drug Administration is the biggest benefit to the e-cig industry – and the biggest problem for users of the devices. According to the CDC, the FDA does not officially recognize e-cigarettes as approved aides to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes.


“Use is increasing, and you can see that by the number of growing companies getting into the game,” said Thornton, who added that he has also seen patients who have been injured by the devices catching fire or exploding. “Until recently, it hasn’t been a very well-regulated field. So, there isn’t a guarantee that these people are smoking what they think they’re smoking.”


E-cigarettes can also be a gateway to the real thing, Thornton added, meaning they likely have the opposite effect on adults like Aguilar who believe they are assisting their health.


“There is increasing scientific literature that suggests e-cigs can be a gateway to becoming addicted to nicotine and becoming a cigarette smoker,” he said. “If we were to see something that would drive smoking numbers back up, that would be a disaster to public health. I would believe that e-cigs do act as a gateway mechanism to people who eventually will smoke cigarettes. It happens to teens, but it could happen to adults as well. They’re flashy, they have different flavors. The fact is, you’re smoking that substance because it has nicotine in it. At the end of the day, you’re addicted to a drug.”


That didn’t matter to Aguilar, who was initially attracted to the flash, taste and cost of the devices. Eventually, she admitted, she couldn’t go anywhere without her trusty electronic cigarette by her side.


A turning point in her e-cig use came when she braved a heavy rainstorm to go out and buy a replacement device after forgetting hers at home.


“One time I went out with my sister. I noticed I didn’t have my electronic cigarette, and it was raining,” Aguilar recalled. “I left during that storm to go buy one. I thought, ‘Shoot, I can’t be without it.’”


Eventually, she tried quitting, and it worked for about a month. She tried a second time, with no success. It wasn’t until her third attempt that Aguilar was able to successfully go cold turkey.


She had read an article about the illness dubbed ‘popcorn lung,’ a bronchial condition originally attributed to breathing in chemicals used to produce microwave popcorn. The same shortness of breath and lung damage associated with popcorn lung has been observed in electronic cigarette users, according to the CDC.


That was all Aguilar needed to know.


“I haven’t craved an electronic cigarette since,” she said.


Not everyone who used the devices will be as fortunate as Aguilar, Thornton said. Programs such as Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education, which sprang up in the 1980s at the same time as the Reagan White House’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign, won’t always be effective on everyone – and in a changing society in which the very definition of the word ‘truth’ is debated by those at the highest levels of government, Thornton said he feels that experts and scientists are shockingly viewed with doubt by the general public.


“There is a rising tide of anti-science and anti-intellectualism. People think, ‘These experts are lying to me,’” Thornton said. “You see that as a doctor – when you try to tell someone something, people just don’t believe it. They say, ‘They’re just doing that to try to screw me. I know better than that person, and therefore, I’m making this decision.’ It’s hard to deal with because it almost drives these conspiracy theory types.”


Not everyone can be persuaded to quit, Thonrton said, and will simply do what they wish. But Aguilar said that, regardless of the flash or flavor of e-cigarettes, she understands the potential dangers and is living proof of the ability to quit. And to those who might be considering picking up an electronic cigarette, don’t even think about it, she cautioned.


“Don’t start. Chew gum instead,” she said, laughing. “I don’t believe these are safer alternatives to cigarettes.”


For more information, visit https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/e-cigarette