NEW YORK: Like conventional cigarettes, electronic cigarettes may function as a “gateway drug” that can prime the brain to be more receptive to harder drugs, US researchers said on Wednesday.
The findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, add to the debate about the risks and benefits of electronic cigarettes, the increasingly popular devices that deliver nicotine directly without burning tobacco.
“With e-cigarettes, we get rid of the danger to the lungs and to the heart, but no one has mentioned the brain,” co-author Dr Eric Kandel of Columbia University said in a telephone interview.
In laboratory studies, the researchers showed that “once mice and rats are on nicotine, they are more addicted to cocaine” after being introduced to that drug, said Dr Aruni Bhatnagar of the University of Louisville, who was not involved in the study but chaired a 10-member American Heart Association panel on the impact of e-cigarettes.
That was true even when the mice received nicotine without burning tobacco, Kandel, a 2000 Nobel laureate for his work on memory, said.
The findings by Kandel and his wife, Columbia University researcher Denise Kandel, expand on her earlier work on nicotine as a “gateway drug,” a theory she first reported on in 1975.
“E-cigarettes have the same physiological effects on the brain and may pose the same risk of addiction to other drugs as regular cigarettes, especially in adolescence during a critical period of brain development,” they wrote.
“Nicotine clearly acts as a gateway drug on the brain, and this effect is likely to occur whether the exposure comes from smoking cigarettes, passive tobacco smoke, or e-cigarettes,” they wrote.
Electronic cigarettes are now a $3bn business with 466 brands that include candy flavouring and are increasingly popular among children, according to the World Health Organisation.
Using 2004 data from a large sample, Denise Kandel found that the rate of cocaine dependence was highest among users who started using cocaine after having smoked cigarettes.
Dr Shanta Rishi Dube of Georgia State University School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study, said the results “appear valid based on prior studies that have looked at nicotine as a potential gateway.”
Bhatnagar said the findings strengthen the case for regulation of e-cigarettes by the US Food and Drug Administration.