E-cigarettes might spare the heart and lungs, but not so much the brain. Columbia University researchers who theorized in the 1970s that nicotine can lead to drug addiction are reiterating that point in light of the e-cigarette's popularity, Reuters reports. Though tobacco-free, "they are pure nicotine-delivery devices," says the updated study's co-author. In lab studies, rats and mice with a nicotine habit were found to be "more addicted to cocaine" once exposed, says one expert, as nicotine lowers the brain's addiction threshold. It "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 study claims.
With 466 brands and flavorings—including candy—the $3 billion e-cigarette business has caught on with kids, adds Reuters. And that's a problem, the scientists say, because the addiction risk may be higher "during a period of brain development;" adolescent rats and mice proved even more addicted than the adults. "The emergence in our society of new recreational pharmaceuticals such as e-cigarettes and legalized marijuana, while justifiable on one level, may have adverse consequences of which we are not fully aware," says another Columbia scientist. Researchers want prevention programs and advocate for e-cigarettes to be regulated by the FDA. (E- cigs may be tobacco-free, but apparently they contain formaldehyde.)