The Fears - As reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Volume 153, Number 9, p. 607-609 (“E-Cigarettes: A Rapidly Growing Internet Phenomenon”):
We contend that the e-cigarette boom presents important public health concerns on at least 3 fronts. First, e-cigarettes may pose a risk as starter products for nonusers of tobacco. Although candy-flavored tobacco products and e-cigarettes were recently banned by the FDA in efforts to hinder marketing toward children, the posturing of e-cigarettes as “green” and “healthy” could deceptively lure adolescents. E-cigarettes also may represent a way for adolescents and adults to skirt smoke-free indoor air laws.
The Reality - As reported in Chapter 19 of the Tobacco Harm Reduction Yearbook 2010 (“Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) as potential tobacco harm reduction products: Results of an online survey of e-cigarette users”):
All respondents previously smoked and 91% had attempted to stop smoking before trying ecigarettes. About half (55%) were 31-50, while 32% were >50 years old. Most (79%) of the respondents had been using e-cigarettes for <6 months and reported using them as a complete (79%) or partial (17%) replacement for, rather than in addition to (4%), cigarettes. The majority of respondents reported that their general health (91%), smoker’s cough (97%), ability to exercise (84%), and sense of smell (80%) and taste (73%) were better since using e-cigarettes and none reported that these were worse. Although people whose e-cigarette use completely replaced smoking were more likely to experience improvements in health and smoking caused symptoms, most people who substituted e-cigarettes for even some of their cigarettes experienced improvements.
Similar results were seen in two other surveys of users. J.F. Etter’s “Electronic cigarettes: a survey of users,” published in BMC Public Health reported, “Our results suggest that most people who buy these products are current and former smokers who use ecigarettes to help quit smoking, just as they would use NRT.” The median age was 37, ranging from 19 to 65 years. An unpublished survey conducted by the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association (casaa.org) found that 50.9% of the 2,217 responders were between ages 30 and 49 years and 27.4% were older than 50 years, and 99.6% had been smokers.
Thus, reality certainly does not match the fears that e-cigarettes will be “starter products” geared towards adolescents and children. It is interesting that critics of e-cigarettes accuse manufacturers of offering flavors as a means of attracting children, but do not accuse the makers of Nicorette gum of luring children to their products via White Ice Mint, Cinnamon Surge, and Fruit Chill flavors.
Lastly, reality faces off against fear #3. E-cigarettes are not burned. Therefore they produce no smoke. Expressing fears that people will use them to “skirt smoke-free indoor air laws” is as ridiculous as fearing that children will purchase root beer as a means of defying laws against sales of alcohol to minors. Root beer isn’t an alcoholic beverage, and vapor isn’t air-polluting smoke.
Authors Yamin, Bitton, and Bates end their Annals of Internal Medicine essay with this statement: "Although the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes is uncertain, we believe that clearly counseling patients against e-cigarette use, as well as other tobacco use, is prudent." Presumably, the authors would prefer that smokers stick with the FDA-approved smoking-cessation products that have a success rate that ranges from 2% to 7% when used as directed.
It is estimated that there are now a million former smokers who achieved their smoking abstinence by switching to e-cigarettes. It isn't at all prudent to recommend that they stop using e-cigarettes and risk relapse, nor is it prudent to steer current smokers away from a product that has a success rate that ranges from 63% to 80% based on the three surveys mentioned above.