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​Rutgers researchers investigate e-cigarette policy perceptions

Photo Illustration | A Rutgers study is questioning the alleged safety of electronic cigarettes compared to traditional cigarettes.  – Photo by Naaz Modan

While the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering expanding its regulatory reach beyond traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes, University professors are now investigating trends in how the public reacts to electronic cigarette policies.

With a nationally representative sample of 519 smokers during a two-week period last April, a study conducted by two Rutgers professors aligned with previous studies, showing that the public thinks e-cigarettes are generally less harmful than traditional ones.

Many people assume the FDA regulates e-cigarettes in the same fashion traditional cigarettes are, Olivia Wackowski, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Education and Behavioral Science, said.

“I think that people assume that since e-cigarettes are legal and are being sold in stores … that they must also be regulated too,” she said. “But that’s not the case yet with these products.”

A primary investigator of the study, Wackowski said many people are lulled into a false sense of security because they assume e-cigarettes have government-sanctioned restrictions.

The study intentionally focused on smokers because they wanted to maximize their research with a sample of individuals that e-cigarette ads are targeted to, she said.

“If we could have included non-smokers, I would have asked them the same questions regarding their e-cigarette policy attitudes so that we could compare the levels of support among smokers and non-smokers,” Wackowski said.

The health risks of e-cigarette use are relatively unknown at the present time because there is no regulation, allowing companies to use different materials in their products, Maressa Nordstrom, a clinical social worker at the CAPS Counseling Center, said.

“People (are) assuming they’re safe when we don’t really know that,” Nordstrom said. “Because there are separate companies and separate entities producing them, there isn’t consistency in how they’re being developed, being used, electrical components (and more).”

One reason why so many people think e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes is because they are designed to appear as a healthy alternative in advertisements, she said.

E-cigarettes appeal to younger generations in particular because they require the user to be somewhat tech-savvy, Nordstrom said.

“E-cigarettes are following similar script to tobacco cigarettes when you look at they’re advertising patterns and marketing,” she said. “They’re taking a page out of the book of the ‘evil geniuses’ of the tobacco industry and I think that’s really dangerous in terms of general consumer consumption.”

Commercial advertising truly does have a significant impact on how the public perceives e-cigarettes in particular, Wackowski said. About 44 percent of survey participants indicated they learned about e-cigarettes from advertisements.

Although it was not included in the published study in "Tobacco Control," she said an additional 44 percent said they learned from the news, and 34 percent learned from someone they know personally.

“Our survey also asked a question about why participants thought e-cigarettes were less harmful,” she said. “The vast majority indicated that it seemed like common sense to them, 82 percent.”

Even though e-cigarettes are not necessarily healthy, Dan Siegel, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said inhaling chemical vapor is still less harmful than inhaling tobacco smoke.

On the other hand, e-cigarettes should still have warning labels regardless of how they are perceived by the public, Siegel said.

“People should know that it’s not good for you,” he said. “But the difference is this is vapor –– cigarettes and tobacco products, you burn tobacco, and that’s where all the carcinogens (and) formaldehyde comes from.”

On a similar note, local smoke shops are not seeing any differences in tobacco product sales as a result of e-cigarettes rising in popularity.

A fair amount of smokers will still purchase tobacco products, Willy Alnsarat, a manager at Amsterdam Smoke Shop located on Easton Avenue, said.

While regulating e-cigarettes with new warning labels might affect customer demand, Alnsarat said certain individuals are likely to continue purchasing these products regardless of a new warning.

“They’re, like ‘healthy’ and (have) no nicotine,” he said. “It depends on if you believe it.”

Even though she said she could not name a practice more unhealthy than smoking tobacco, Nordstrom said nobody could be certain about the safety of e-cigarettes until more research is done.

“It would be hard to say they’re worse than cigarettes,” she said. “But again, there are some things we just won’t know for some time.”

Dan Corey is a Rutgers Business School first-year student majoring in pre-business and journalism and media studies. He is an Associate News Editor at The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @_dancorey.

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