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E-Cigarettes Linked to Increased Illicit Drug Use and Addiction

Update Date: Sep 03, 2014 05:04 PM EDT

With the e-cigarette industry booming, more and more studies are examining the risks and health benefits involved with using these "vaping" products. In a new lecture authored by researchers from Columbia University, they concluded that e-cigarettes could become gateway drugs for some users, increasing their risks of illicit drug use and drug addiction.

"While e-cigarettes do eliminate some of the health effects associated with combustible tobacco, they are pure nicotine-delivery devices," said lecture co-author, Denise B. Kandel, PhD, from the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) according to the press release.

Kandel and co-author Eric R. Kandel, MD, a senior investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at CUMC, wrote their lecture based on previous studies that examined the link between nicotine and the brain. They wrote that in animal models, at least, nicotine could change the brain biochemically. The substance causes a gene tied to rewards to become activated, which can influence the mice to use other drugs. Similar effects of nicotine can be seen in human as well, the team stated.

"Our findings provided a biologic basis for the sequence of drug use observed in people. One drug alters the brain's circuitry in a way that enhances the effects of a subsequent drug," said Dr. Eric Kandel said.

The authors added, "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. We don't yet know whether e-cigarettes will prove to be a gateway to the use of conventional cigarettes and illicit drugs, but that's certainly a possibility. 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."

The team concluded that since more adolescents and young adults are using e-cigarettes, measures should be taken to limit or prevent their use of these products.

The lecture titled "A Molecular Basis for Nicotine as a Gateway Drug" was presented to the Massachusetts Medical Society and published in the online edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

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