E-Cigarette Poisoning on the Rise, CDC Says

By Neha Sharma, DO

They're supposedly a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes. But electronic cigarettes may actually pose a serious danger to others in your home - particularly children.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned in report released today that the number of phone calls to U.S. poison control centers related to e-cigarette use has increased from just one call per month on average in 2010 to nearly 200 calls per month in early 2014.

"The rise in the numbers of e-cigs related calls to poison centers leads us to view this as a major public health concern," said report author Dr. Kevin Chatham-Stephen, a pediatrician and an epidemiologist with the CDC.

He said that though e-cigs comprise less than 2 percent of all tobacco-related sales, they now account for more than 40 percent of poison center calls. More than half of the calls involved children younger than 5 years old.

"This is a very dramatic finding," Chatham-Stephen said.

According to the report, most of these emergencies are linked to the liquid nicotine within the e-cigs. If the liquid is released from the cylinder that holds it, the result can be acute nicotine toxicity from direct skin or eye exposure, ingestion, or inhalation.

"Cigarettes are the most dangerous consumer product on the planet, and smokers need to treat e-cigs with considerable caution especially since the product is unregulated." said Dr. Tim MacAfee, director of the Office on Smoking and Health at CDC and contributor to the report.

Those within the e-cigarette industry said concerns are overblown. Jason Healy, the president of e-cigarette manufacturer Blu-cigs, called the findings in the report "a weak argument" against the devices and is evidence of "an ongoing attack on the e-cigs industry by various anti-smoking groups."

"The product is for adult smokers, and therefore the responsibility for children's safety falls on the parents, just like bleaches and prescription medications," Healy said. "The focus should be on parenting and education, and not regulation."

Healy did say, however, that the findings should prompt the e-cig industry to formulate effective child safety measures.

Still, toxicology experts not involved in the study said the report reveals a concerning threat to kids.

"Nicotine is probably the most toxic plant chemical ever discovered," said Dr. Richard Clark, medical director for the California Poison Control System and a professor of toxicology. Clark said poison centers like his are seeing a steady increase in calls related to e-cigs. Of particular concern, he said, is that unlike the conventional cigarette, which is usually very bitter, these devices are flavored and thus more attractive to children. The solution is also easily absorbed through the skin if spilled, unlike the contents of regular cigarettes.

Doctor's Take

Despite decades of admonitions against smoking, an estimated 42 million people in the United States still smoke cigarettes. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, accounting for one of every five deaths each year. So for many, the electronic option may hold a certain appeal.

But though e-cigarette use is increasing among U.S. adolescents and adults, its overall impact on public health remains unclear. The dramatic rise in E-cigarette related calls to the country's poison control centers is alarming. And the fact that the product is not childproof should alert parents to keep the product out of reach and in an enclosed container.