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Cigarette substitutes like e-cigarettes: how safe or effective are the alternatives to tobacco?

Blog post | 12 Oct 2022

Some things in life are certain. Puppies are cute, the Earth is round and smoking cigarettes is bad for you.

Cigarettes are addictive and can cause cancer. Alternatives are available, but how safe are they?

Are e-cigarettes safe?

No. The different flavours in e-cigarettes — also called e-cigs and vapes — make them seem less dangerous than tobacco-containing cigarettes. But e-cigs contain chemicals and toxins that may be harmful to your health.

Researchers have found chemicals in e-cigs that are also in nail polish remover, bug spray, weed killer and cleaning products. Some of the other ingredients in e-cigs have government approval for food production, but there’s uncertainty on whether the chemicals used in e-liquids are safe to inhale.

Even though e-cigs don’t contain the cancer-causing chemical, tar, found in cigarettes, scientists are still concerned that e-cigs may increase your risk of lung cancer, heart disease and cancer. Several deaths in the United States have links to vaping.

E-cigs are not a proven, safe and effective way to quit smoking. But some people may find them beneficial in the short term, when other options haven’t worked.

Find out more about the health risks associated with vaping.

Can I buy nicotine e-cigarettes (vapes) in Australia?

You can buy nicotine e-cigarette (vaping) products from Australian pharmacies and import them from overseas websites, but you must have a prescription from an Australian doctor.

It’s illegal for retailers such as tobacconists, 'vape' shops and convenience stores to sell you nicotine vaping products, even if you have a prescription.

And just because it’s illegal to buy nicotine e-cigarettes without a prescription, this doesn’t mean that other e-cigarette products won’t contain nicotine. Nicotine is toxic, addictive and a stimulant.

Learn more about the sale of vaping products.

What about cigars and shisha?

Cigars are as dangerous as cigarettes and sometimes more so. Some brands of cigars contain at least 10 to 20 times more nicotine than cigarettes.

Shisha is not safer than tobacco cigarettes. Shisha tobacco contains large amounts of nicotine, carbon monoxide, tar and other toxins. The water in the pipe doesn’t filter harmful chemicals. Even tobacco-free or herbal shisha products are harmful and contain cancer-causing chemicals.

In 2020-21, just under 1 in 10 Australians aged 18 years and older were daily smokers.

Are nicotine products better than smoking?

When you have nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) you’ll get small, measured doses of nicotine into your bloodstream. You won’t get the harmful chemicals found in a cigarette.

NRT includes patches, gum, lozenges, sprays and inhalers. They're safe to use but you may find that you experience mild side effects, which usually don’t last for long. Make sure you use the treatment correctly to help avoid any side effects.

You can get these products in pharmacies and some supermarkets without a prescription from a doctor.

You may be able to buy them on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). This means that if you get a prescription from a doctor, you can buy nicotine replacements at a reduced price.

  • A nicotine patch is a 'steady response product' and usually used in combination with a quick response product. Attached to your skin like a medical plaster, the patch gives you a steady dose of nicotine while you're wearing it. It can take a few hours for nicotine levels to rise after you apply your first patch of the day.

  • Nicotine chewing gum, lozenges, mouth sprays and inhalers are 'quick response products'. They can deliver nicotine as soon you're craving it, which helps if your need to smoke changes throughout the day.

Combining 2 forms of NRT may work better than one.

Speak to a pharmacist or doctor if you’re not sure which one is right for you.

Prescription medication can help with withdrawal

Quitting smoking can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as sleeping problems, irritability, hunger and restlessness. Two types of prescription medicine can help reduce withdrawal symptoms when you quit: Champix (varenicline) and Zyban (bupropion).

Champix and Zyban block the nicotine receptors in your brain, making smoking less satisfying. They’re safe to take but you may experience side effects.

Ready to quit? Ask your doctor about these medications, both of which are on the PBS. There are limits to how many prescriptions you can have in a year. You may also need coaching and support from Quitline or a health professional, which helps to increase your chance of quitting.

These medicines are not suitable for everyone. Speak to your doctor about what’s right for you.

Get help to quit smoking

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in Australia. Tobacco use can lead to a range of diseases including cancer, heart disease, stroke, stomach ulcers, and chest and lung illnesses.

It's important to quit.

The good news? Your body starts repairing itself as soon as you stop smoking.

  • Speak to a doctor or pharmacist.
  • Call the Quitline on 13 7848 — even if you're not ready to quit yet.
  • Build a 'quit plan'. Follow the steps to design a plan that suits your life.
  • Download the free My QuitBuddy app to quit when you want to, on your own terms.

This post was originally published on 12 November 2019 and has been updated to include the most recent details on this topic.

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