NEW YORK — Dr. Michael Siegel, a hard-charging public health researcher at Boston University, argues that e-cigarettes could be the beginning of the end of smoking in America. He sees them as a disruptive innovation that could make cigarettes obsolete, like the computer did to the typewriter.
But his former teacher and mentor, Stanton A. Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, is convinced that e-cigarettes may erase the hard-won progress achieved over the last half-century in reducing smoking.
He predicts that the modern gadgetry will be a glittering gateway to the deadly, old-fashioned habit for children, and that adult smokers will stay hooked longer now that they can get, if their workplace permits it, a nicotine fix at their desks.
These experts represent the two camps at war over the public health implications of e-cigarettes. The devices, intended to feed nicotine addiction without the toxic tar of conventional cigarettes, have divided a normally sedate public health community that had long been united in the fight against smoking and Big Tobacco.
The essence of their disagreement comes down to a simple question: Will e-cigarettes cause more or fewer people to smoke? The answer matters. Cigarette smoking is still the single largest cause of preventable death in the United States, killing about 480,000 people a year.
Siegel, whose graduate school manuscripts Glantz used to read, says e-cigarette pessimists are stuck on the idea that anything that looks like smoking is bad. “They are so blinded by this ideology that they are not able to see e-cigarettes objectively,” he said.
Siegel and others contend that the strategy should be to reduce harm from conventional cigarettes, and e-cigarettes offer a way to do that, he said, much in the way that giving clean needles to intravenous drug users reduces their odds of getting infected with the virus that causes AIDS.
Glantz says that while e-cigarettes might be good in theory, they are bad in practice. The vast majority of people who smoke them now also smoke conventional cigarettes, he said, and there is little evidence that much switching is happening.
E-cigarettes may even prolong the habit, he said, by offering a dose of nicotine at times when getting one from a traditional cigarette is inconvenient or illegal.
Science that might resolve questions about e-cigarettes is still developing, and many experts agree that the evidence so far is too skimpy to draw definitive conclusions about the long-term effects of the devices on the broader population.
“The popularity is outpacing the knowledge,” said Dr. Michael B. Steinberg, associate professor of medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University. “We’ll have a better idea in another year or two of how safe these products are, but the question is, will the horse be out of the barn by then?”
This high-stakes debate over what e-cigarettes mean for the nation’s 42 million smokers comes at a crucial moment. Soon, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue regulations that would give the agency control over the devices, which have had explosive growth virtually free of any federal oversight.
Some cities, such as Boston and New York, and some states, like New Jersey and Utah, have weighed in, enacting bans in public places.
The new federal rules will have broad implications for public health. If they are too tough, experts say, they risk snuffing out small e-cigarette companies in favor of Big Tobacco, which has recently entered the e-cigarette business. If they are too lax, sloppy manufacturing could lead to devices that do not work properly or even harm people.
And many scientists say e-cigarettes will be truly effective in reducing the death toll from smoking only with the right kind of federal regulation, for example, rules that make ordinary cigarettes more expensive than e-cigarettes or that reduce the amount of nicotine in ordinary cigarettes so smokers turn to e-cigarettes for their nicotine.