Newer versions of e-cigarettes known as vape pens may not look much like traditional cigarettes, but seeing someone use these devices still sparks a desire to smoke, a recent study suggests.
Like other types of e-cigarettes, vaporizers, or vape pens, are battery-powered gadgets with a heating element that turns liquid nicotine and flavorings into a cloud of vapor that users inhale. Vape pens are larger, produce bigger clouds of vapor and look less like traditional cigarettes than other e-cigarettes.
In a lab experiment, researchers randomly assigned 108 young adult smokers to interact with a person using either traditional cigarettes or vape pens. Both scenarios led to a similar spike in participants' desire to smoke a cigarette, even if they had never tried a vape pen before.
These results were a surprise, and cast doubt on the potential for e-cigarettes to work as smoking cessation aid, said lead study author Andrea King, a psychiatry researcher at the University of Chicago.
"Smokers needs to be aware that - just like Pavlov's dogs salivating to a bell associated with food - cigarettes, ashtrays, lighters, etc. may increase desire to smoke and alert the brain's reward system," King said by email.
"Our findings would suggest that smokers may want to reduce their exposures to the use of e-cigarettes as well as traditional cigarettes," King added.
Big U.S. tobacco companies are all developing e-cigarettes. In the decade since the devices came on the U.S. market, public health experts have debated whether they might help with smoking cessation or at least be a safer alternative to smoking traditional combustible cigarettes, or whether they might lure a new generation into nicotine addiction.
The current study doesn't explore the safety of the devices, but it does cast doubt on the potential for e-cigarettes to help blunt cravings for cigarettes.
In their experiment, King and colleagues testing smoking urges in 108 men and women aged 18 to 35 who currently smoked an average of about nine cigarettes a day.
More than 80 percent of the participants had also tried e-cigarettes at least once and almost 30 percent had used one in the past month.
When people volunteered for the study, researchers told them they would be invited to participate in an experiment assessing their mood after completing certain tasks or social interactions. Participants didn't know the experiment was really assessing their urge to smoke.
In the lab, participants chatted with researchers posing as other volunteers. During these interactions, the pretending volunteer either smoked a traditional tobacco cigarette or used a vape pen. Both cues increased desire among research subjects for a cigarette or an e-cigarette.
The level and duration of desire to smoke among volunteers was the same whether they observed the researcher smoking a cigarette or using a vape pen. When the researcher drank bottled water, however, volunteers had no change in desire to smoke or vape.
At the end of the experiment, researchers tested the ability to resist smoking in a subset of 26 volunteers who were daily smokers. Researchers put a cigarette, lighter and ashtray in front of the volunteers and told them they could smoke or receive 20 cents for every five minutes they resisted.
Most volunteers held out for only 20 minutes, and this delay was the same whether their partner had been previously using a vape pen or a cigarette, the study found.
One limitation of the study is that its small size and lab setting make it difficult to know how seeing vape pens would influence smoking urges among smokers in real life situations, the authors note in Nicotine and Tobacco Research.
Still, the findings suggest being around vapers may make it harder for smokers to quit, said Dr. Brian Primack, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who wasn't involved in the study.
"It may lead to more urges to smoke or more relapses," Primack said by email.