March 25, 2014 at 11:45 AM ET
Many people think smoking e-cigarettes is safer, but experts are increasingly worried about accidental poisoning from liquid nicotine, a key ingredient used in “vaping.”
“I think the premise that I liked in the beginning [was that] nicotine in small doses, which is already found in gum and patches, could perhaps help smokers stop smoking,” Dr. Nancy Snyderman, chief medical editor of NBC News told TODAY's Matt Lauer. “I don’t know if the jury is in yet that it’s gotten people off cigarettes and just on to these nicotine devices."
The e-cigarettes, also known as vaporizers, work by converting liquid nicotine into vapor that smokers inhale. Because e-cigarettes are relatively new, it’s unknown whether they have long-term potential to help people quit smoking, like gum or the patch.
E-cigarettes eliminate risks from more than 60 cancer-causing chemicals found in tobacco smoke, but they do contain toxic ingredients such as diethylene glycol (found in anti-freeze) and propylene glycol (a lung irritant found in fake smoke machines).
While some e-cigarettes come pre-loaded with liquid nicotine, others need to be refilled with liquid nicotine, which is extremely toxic, especially for children.
There was a 307 percent increase in total e-cigarette related poisoning cases from 2012-2013, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Liquid nicotine, also called e-liquid, is a potential toxin when ingested and when it comes into contact with skin. Some potential symptoms of exposure to nicotine include rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dizziness. Severe exposure can potentially cause seizures leading to coma and death.
Because there is no government regulation, it is easy for anyone to purchase e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine. Many brands of liquid nicotine used in the refillable vaporizers are flavored and have a sweet smell and taste, such as vanilla or caramel. These flavors might encourage small children or pets to seek out the liquid nicotine.
“The question then is, does it taste too good and does it invite kids to try it?” Snyderman said.
The California Poison Control Center says a teaspoon can cause seizures and a tablespoon can cause death, Snyderman said.
“While [liquid nicotine] is a neurotoxin that doesn’t cause cancer, it does directly affect the brain,” said Snyderman.
E-cigarettes entered the market in 2007 and have become more popular, especially with children. In 2010, the industry grew to a $1.5 billion market. According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, the number of teenagers who tried e-cigarettes increased from 3.3 percent in 2011 to 6.8 percent in 2012. The study finds that teens who use e-cigarettes were more likely to try real cigarettes.
TODAY contributor Sarah Bourassa contributed to this report