E-Cigs Increased Urge to Light Up Tobacco Cigarettes

Electronic cigarette exposure made smokers reach for their packs of tobacco cigarettes

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Decades of research suggest that if a smoker watches someone else light up a cigarette, it will likely increase the smoker’s urge to light up themselves. Seeing someone use an electronic cigarette may have the same effect.

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are increasingly popular devices that heat up a liquid containing nicotine. That liquid is then turned into vapor to be inhaled, or "vaped," by the user. 

According to new research from a team in Chicago, seeing someone use an e-cigarette or smoke a tobacco cigarette increased young adult smokers' desire to light up a regular cigarette themselves.

"Ask your doctor for help to quit smoking."

Andrea King, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the University of Chicago, led this study.

This first-of-its kind research used previous clinical observations as a starting point. Specifically, research that found that exposure to a traditional cigarette can act as a cue to increase the urge to smoke.

With that in mind, Dr. King and team set out to study if the same holds true for e-cigarettes, which work differently than combustible cigarettes but still deliver nicotine.

A group of 60 smokers between the ages of 18 and 35 completed a rating sheet before and after exposure to an actor, pretending to be a study participant, who would smoke an e-cigarette or regular cigarette during a conversation with an actual study participant.

Study participants rated the desire to smoke and urge to smoke before and after the conversation.

Dr. King and team found that smokers reported an increased desire to smoke a traditional cigarette after observing the actor smoke a traditional cigarette or e-cigarette.

In this scenario, the desire to smoke remained 20 minutes after exposure.

The inverse — observing regular and e-cigarette use driving desire to smoke an e-cigarette — did not hold true.

“Whether participants were exposed to someone smoking a combustible or an e-cigarette, the urge to smoke a combustible cigarette was just as high in either condition,” Dr. King said in a press statement.

“We know from past research that seeing regular cigarette use is a potent cue for someone to want to smoke. We did not know if seeing e-cigarette use would produce the same effect. But that is exactly what we found.”

E-cigarettes are booming in popularity, particularly in cities that are cracking down on traditional cigarette use in public places. The devices are sometimes billed as a way to stop smoking, as the nicotine level can be incrementally dialed down.

Dr. King and her colleagues stressed the importance of fully understanding not only the health implications for an e-cigarette users, but also the potential implications of secondary effects like those that her team analyzed.

She acknowledged the work as a first look at the passive effects of e-cigarettes.

“This study was our first investigation and there are still many unanswered questions. We don’t know about the effects on a non-smoker or a person who has quit smoking or if responses are different for the various e-cigarette brands,” Dr. King said.

“But if the results do generalize and we show this in other groups, it’s important to consider policy going forward in terms of reducing harm for both users and observers of e-cigarettes," she said.

The study was published May 21 in the peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control.

This research was funded by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The authors did not disclose any conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
June 2, 2014
Last Updated:
June 2, 2014