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June 3rd, 2010
12:18 PM ET

My boss smokes e-cigarettes in the office. Is this safe?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Thien Pham, Laramie, WY

“I have a supervisor who is starting to smoke electronic cigarettes in his office. I am wondering what the secondhand smoking health effect is from electronic smoke (such as e-smoke products). Is it legal for people to smoke e-cigarettes inside? Thank you.”

Answer:

This is a great question, Thien, because the mere concept of an electronic cigarette is confusing for folks. These electronic alternatives to conventional cigarettes are touted as a safe alternative to smoking. The suggestion is that secondhand vapor from an e-cigarette might be safe too.

Well, not so fast. The safety record for e-smoke products and the vapor they emit thus far is, well, hazy. There have been no studies about safety for these products in the U.S.

First, it is important to know the difference between an e-cigarette and a conventional one. E-cigarettes, since they are not lit by fire, skip the combustion process. So there is no smoldering, smoky burn at the tip like you would see when lighting a conventional cigarette. Instead, e-cigarettes contain liquid nicotine encased in a plastic filter. When you take a "puff" or inhale on this cigarette surrogate, a small battery warms the nicotine in that filter, creating a thin stream of vapor when exhaled.

Right now, there is no federal ban on indoor e-cigarette smoking, although there are states such as New Jersey that are trying. New Jersey's argument is based, in part, on a recent Food and Drug Administration analysis of ingredients contained in these products. Turns out that despite that lack of combustion, some of the most popular e-cigarette brands contain carcinogens - they could still cause cancer. The FDA has also detected a toxic chemical found in antifreeze in some leading brands.

That means that although manufacturers of these e-cigarettes say they are pretty sure their product is safe, the jury is still out about the health effects (and consequently secondhand effects) with e-cigarettes.

Another argument for safety by e-cigarette manufacturers is that they contain nicotine, but none of the other harmful additives in cigarettes. Nicotine on its own is highly addictive and we do not know yet the the health effects of inhaling pure nicotine, nor do we know what could happen if those toxic substances the FDA found could harm folks in close proximity to the "e-smoker."

In a nutshell, until we know more, you may want to - protectively - steer clear from your supervisor's office.

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Filed under: Cancer • Expert Q&A • Smoking

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.