FDA: Longer use of nicotine gum safe for helping smokers quit, but e-cigarettes not recommended

Lexington resident Valerie Schwaber exhales the odorless vapor from her favorite electronic cigarette device. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)

Last week, I questioned whether the government’s scary new anti-smoking ad campaign would actually help smokers quit and was surprised to see several comments endorsing the use of e-cigarettes. Some of you said you preferred the battery-operated devices over other nicotine quitting aids like gum, lozenges, and patches.

While also delivering nicotine, e-cigarettes are inhaled through cartridges filled with flavor and other chemicals. But they haven’t been evaluated or approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for safety or effectiveness in helping smokers quit.

The FDA did an analysis of e-cigarettes in 2009 and issued a warning about the products’ safety after finding that the cartridges contained cancer-causing chemicals and other toxic substances such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics and other physicians groups have also expressed concerns that e-cigarettes may be encouraging non-smokers to start. What’s more, a small study from Greece published last year found that smoking e-cigarettes for as little as 10 minutes increased airway resistance in the lungs which could raise the risk of asthma and other lung conditions.

To combat nicotine withdrawal, those trying to quit would be far better off trying an FDA-approved nicotine replacement product like the gum, lozenges or patches. And they no longer need to worry about how long they can safely use them.

While the FDA previously recommended that these products should be stopped after 12 weeks, the agency announced earlier this week that those trying to quit could use the products for far longer without safety concerns as long as they were doing so under medical supervision.

Smokers also don’t need to worry if they light up occasionally while using a nicotine replacement product since the FDA has found that the risks of getting an unsafe level of nicotine from doing both together are very small. The FDA previously told consumers to stop using nicotine replacement therapies if they cheated every so often with a cigarette.

“The agency heard from several public health groups that the labeling for over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapy products may stop consumers who are trying to quit smoking from using them,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg said in a statement. “FDA hopes the recommended changes will allow more people to use these products effectively for smoking cessation and that tobacco dependence will decline in this country.”