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Do E-Cigarettes Help Smokers Quit? It Depends on Whom You Ask

The nicotine liquid in an e-cigarette
The nicotine liquid in an e-cigarettePhotograph by Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

E-cigarettes are in the middle of an image war. The $1.5 billion e-cig industry says the nicotine vaporizers are a less harmful alternative to smoking tobacco. Public health officials, on the other hand, warn that vaping may be an on-ramp for kids to start smoking tobacco, and seeks more restrictive rules. The science is inconclusive, and for now the Food and Drug Administration has landed somewhere in the middle: It recently proposed rules to bar sales to minors, but stopped short of cracking down on advertising or flavored e-cigs that critics say appeal to children.

Doctors who specialize in helping people quit smoking say confusion about vaping’s benefits for smokers who want to stop makes their job harder. “We don’t have any real evidence that they help people stop smoking,” says Dr. Richard Hurt, who ran the Nicotine Dependence Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for 26 years. While he says there’s no question that puffing an e-cig is less harmful than smoking tobacco, “they’re not safer than just breathing clean air.”