It's not easy to quit smoking, and smokers who want to quit deserve all the help and support they can get, don't they? Electronic or (e)-cigarettes can be part of that support system. In fact, they are coming to be viewed by many as making a positive contribution to health, or at the very least, as a benign accessory.

But there is another side to e-cigarettes, and it's not healthy at all, a recent study points out.

Electronic cigarettes are smokeless and spare the lungs of those using the nicotine delivery devices, as well as those of others from exposure to the tar in regular cigarette smoke. They offer smokers finding it hard to quit another option.

E-cigarettes may be hooking a generation on nicotine who might have otherwise avoided smoking completely.

E-cigarettes are big business, with sophisticated product design and marketing, according to the study. They even come in colors and flavors. They are promoted by celebrities, on the Internet, and through social media as a popular consumer-friendly product, not as a way to give up smoking.

In the process, e-cigarettes may be hooking a generation on nicotine who might have otherwise avoided smoking completely. The number of high school students in the U.S. experimenting with e-cigarettes more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, rising to 10%, according to the study. Electronic cigarettes are a health problem in the making, and more government regulation may be needed.

Teens try them thinking e-cigarettes offer no downside. They can quickly become addicted to the nicotine e-cigarettes deliver.

“On one side of the debate are those who call for caution in endorsing such products until critical pieces of evidence about their safety and potential become available, whereas the other side argues that the merit of e-cigarettes to tobacco control and public health is obvious. For the latter camp, with e-cigarettes we finally have a product that looks like cigarettes, works like cigarettes, is popular among smokers, but poses less harm than conventional cigarettes,” said Wasim Maziak, MD, PhD of Florida International University, author of the study.

E-cigarettes reduce the harm of smoking tobacco for smokers and those exposed to their secondhand smoke. But Maziak wonders whose harm is reduced, “First, we need to make a distinction between harm reduction at the individual and population levels.”

So, while electronic “smokeless” cigarettes can help some smokers struggling to quit, they are being marketed as a safe way to smoke, which is not true. “…[E]-cigarettes do not qualify as a harm-reduction product, and, if anything, they can lead to one of the major blunders in public health,” according to Maziak.

Parents and teens need to be aware that e-cigarettes are not harmless. Children should be counseled that nicotine is addictive and can have long-term consequences even without the tar associated with tobacco cigarettes.

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.