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Column originally published Feb 23, 2016
Column last revised/updated on Jul 22, 2018


Question: I have been a smoker for many years. Our son was admitted to hospital recently with a severe asthma attack. This is not the first time that he was in the hospital because of asthma. I have been told many times that I should quit smoking, but it is very hard. I heard that e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking, is it true?


You are right, it is not easy to quit smoking. Nicotine is probably one of the most addictive substances on earth. It doesn’t take long before one gets hooked onto smoking; but quitting is a much longer process.

Many alcoholics can quit drinking, especially if they have help and support from family and friends, and work through the twelve-steps program. However, a lot of them continue to smoke. This is an indication of how addictive cigarette smoking is. I am not saying that alcohol addiction is easy to overcome, but cigarette smoking is even harder to quit.

It has been estimated that you inhale hundreds of cancer-causing chemicals when you smoke. Lung cancer and COPD (chronic obstructive lung disease) are two common complications of smoking. Unfortunately, it also harms those close to the smoker. If you go outside to smoke, you carry some of those chemicals on your body and clothing (this is called third-hand smoke). When you hold your son, he breathes them into his lungs and make him sick. It is important for you to quit smoking now, before he develops irreparable damage in his lungs.

Electronic cigarettes look and work like cigarettes. You breathe in nicotine vapour generated by the heating element. Unfortunately, e-cigarettes are unregulated; the amount of nicotine in the cartridge is quite variable. Furthermore, formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is also produced by e-cigarettes, although there are far fewer harmful chemicals than smoking.

Whether e-cigarettes can help a person to quit smoking is unclear. Some research suggests that it can. I think it depends on the person; if you are determined to quit smoking because you want a better environment for your son and better health for yourself, and want to use e-cigarette to reduce your dependence on nicotine, then it can help you to quit over time. If you continue to smoke when you use e-cigarette, then your chance of success is low.

There are other things that can help you to quit smoking. Nicotine patch has been proven effective for many smokers. It delivers a continuous dose of nicotine into your body, and reduces craving from nicotine withdrawal. You cannot smoke when you use the patch, because additional nicotine from cigarettes can be very dangerous to your health. You may need to stay on the patch for longer time than recommended because your brain has been rewired by nicotine addiction. You should look for something to keep your hands busy and chew on gums as part of the withdrawal process.

There are nicotine inhalers as well as nicotine gums. These may give additional support when you are quitting. There are also medications that your doctors can prescribe. These medications can reduce nicotine craving and improve your chance of success. Many provinces have programs to help smokers to quit. Please check with the public health department.

The most important decision is your desire and determination to quit. Discuss with your doctor and ask for help. You will need the support of your spouse also, because it is very hard for one parent to quit while the other one continues to smoke. Good luck.