Category Archives: New York Times

Which Lifestyle Choice in China Will Kill You First?

Happy Elderly Seniors Couple Biking

If the tooth fairy gave you 10,000 RMB every year in China that you could only spend on your health, what would you buy? Would you get an air purifier? How about a gym membership; an organic delivery service; a daily massage — what would you choose? Perhaps it’s best to rephrase the question, “what gives my health the most bang for the buck?” In order to answer that, one needs to know which lifestyle choices are harmless fun and which are unhealthy.

Air Pollution : A Lifestyle Choice? 

Many in China, both local and foreign, would instinctively say that air pollution is their greatest threat to health, but is it really? Let’s make a slight intellectual leap and say that exposure to air pollution is a lifestyle choice; in other words, a modifiable risk factor. I know that breathing is of course involuntary, but most of my readers do have a choice whether or not to live here in China. If you accept this admittedly disturbing assumption, you can then compare this always dreaded “risk factor” to much more mundane risks we all encounter — such as obesity, smoking, lack of exercise, poor diet and other lifestyle choices.

We can clarify lifestyle choices even further into what the American Heart Association calls the four ideal health behaviors:

  • not smoking
  • not being overweight (body-mass index (BMI) <25 kg/m 2)
  • physical activity at goal levels (>150 minutes a week of moderate exercise)
  • diet that includes three or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily.

The AHA also lists three ideal health factors, including total cholesterol <200 mg/dL, systolic blood pressure <120 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure <80 mm Hg, and fasting plasma glucose levels <100 mg/dL.

How many of these seven metrics do you pass? Don’t feel too guilty, as only 1 percent of the AHA’s test group of 7,622 persons passed all seven. But here’s the clincher: compared with individuals who didn’t meet any of these seven measures, those with five or more had a 78% lower risk of all-cause mortality and an 88% lower risk of death from diseases of the circulatory system. That’s impressive, no? But it’s much more interesting to find out exactly which of these ideal goals is most efficiently beneficial. Plus, how do they compare to air pollution?

Yoga Near Lighthouse

It’s All About The Relative Risks

I’m a data junkie, and I find hard numbers very comforting in the midst of my hectic “medicine is art” family medicine clinic. My favorite tool to compare health outcomes is the relative risk; this compares the ratio of a disease’s prevalence from a health exposure as compared to non-exposure. It’s simple division: divide numerator (exposure) by denominator (no exposure) and you have your ratio, your “RR”. Any RR over 1 signifies a positive risk, and under 1 is a “negative” risk, i.e. a benefit. Let’s use air pollution and smoking as initial examples. As I mentioned in my controversial post earlier this year, a day in Beijing is comparable to smoking 1/6 of a cigarette, which for many of my readers was scandalously low, almost heretical to their predisposed belief systems.  Sorry, true believers, but you can crunch the numbers yourself from Dr C Arden Pope’s sudy. From this study, we can calculate relative risks of lung cancer for air pollution, smoking and secondhand smoke:

  • Air pollution (from American Cancer Society and Harvard Six Cities studies): 1.14-1.21 relative risk
  • Air pollution in Beijing: 1.49 RR
  • Secondhand smoke victims: 1.21-1.28 RR
  • Smoking 3 cigarettes a day: 5.6 RR
  • Smoking half a pack a day: 7.7 RR
  • Smoking a pack a day: 12.2 RR
  • Smoking two packs a day: 19.8 RR

As the numbers show, “light” smoking of only 3 a day is far more deadly than living with Beijing’s air pollution. Since writing that article last winter, I’ve achieved a certain catharsis on this issue, and my personal obsession with air pollution has mellowed from debilitating to professionally curious. I’m now more concerned with the much less glamorous lifestyle choices that bedevil all developing societies, all eagerly latching onto the “Western” lifestyle and quickly picking up both the best and the worst of such lifestyle.

I’m particularly worried about obesity, the great pandemic of our times and an astonishingly pervasive crisis in my homeland, the USA. When I make my annual visit home on Boston’s south shore, I’m truly shocked just how large are the average American adult and child. Having spent six years outside of America, I can peer back with increasing impassivity and state that Americans simply don’t realize the true state of this public health disaster. One of my all-time favorite public health graphs, taken from data from a 1999 NEJM review article, shows the relative risks of increasing weight on coronary heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney stones.

Right now, more than half of Americans are technically overweight, with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 25, the threshold crossing from “normal” to “overweight”. This BMI of 25, now the new normal in the US, increases your lifetime risk of diabetes sixfold, and your risk of high blood pressure doubles. And that’s only at the mildly overweight group; the 35% of Americans who are technically obese, with a BMI over 30, have at least a forty-fold increased risk of getting diabetes. Obesity also raises your risk of cancers; in one study of obesity and cancers, the relative risk of death was 1.52-1.62 in the heaviest group (BMI over 40).

Shanghai Skyline in thick Fog

My 10,000 RMB Each Year Goes To…

When we discuss the global burden of disease, there isn’t anything very different anymore about China compared to most other countries. Chinese people are already dying from the same chronic diseases as the developed countries, and people here need to follow the same common sense lifestyle precautions as anybody else does.

I meet many patients who spend extraordinary amounts on imported air purifiers, whose markup is so sinfully exorbitant the distributors should be publicly flogged. But a great many of these patients are mildly overweight, or “walk” for exercise, or have only a couple servings of vegetables a day. I hope some of these same people can realize that they’re focusing their energies and their money on the wrong issue. Same goes for kids; if parents are fighting over Blueair versus IQAir for the nursery, but their child is already at 99% weight, then their pediatrician needs to have a serious discussion with them about prioritizing. And heaven forbid if you’re even a “light” smoker; please just sell the damn air purifier, return your gym membership, and go pick up a prescription of varenicline!

As for me, with my 10,000 RMB annual play money? I’m already maxed out on those pricey imported air purifiers at home, although the replacement filter cost certainly adds up (again at extortionary markups). And I’m a bit self-satisfied that I pass all three of the AHA’s ideal health factors. As for their ideal behaviors, I don’t smoke, so I’m down to the weight and exercise issue — the banes of our modern civilization. My BMI hovers at 24-25 but my waistline is starting to strain a bit at my perennial size 33 waist. Perhaps I can blame Beijing’s hard water for the pants shrinking in the wash? No, I must admit that I am slowly losing the weight battle, as are most fortysomething men. I also am skilled at hypocrisy, preaching eloquently to my patients about needing their 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise yet equally poor at following my own wise words.

So this year, I’ve locked up my wonderfully fun electric bike and now pedal to the hospital most days, even now, during Beijing’s biting winter. My exercise is now part of daily life and not a “chore” like trudging guiltily to the gym. As for getting the weight down, I’ve started to make my own morning coffee so I won’t be tempted by a Starbucks muffin to go with their Christmas toffee latte (hold the whipped cream).

My health risks are relatively small (knock on wood) so my goals are fairly modest — and very inexpensive as well. I’m way under my 10k RMB stipend, so I’ll use the rest of that money for the creature comforts you can get only in China: two hour massages; three hour KTV sessions; all-day soaks in Beijing’s local hot springs. It’s those little things in China, those cumulative and inexpensive perks, that truly soothe the soul. In China, as anywhere else, mental health is just as crucial as physical health.

 


This article was originally published in 2014 on my sister blog, myhealthbeijing.com. A Chinese version of this article was published in my New York Times Chinese health column.

Sunscreens Prevent Cancers — And Wrinkles

I’m usually quite proud of my Irish ancestry, but one unfortunate vestige of that heritage is pasty white skin that sunburns quite easily. When my mother was pregnant with me and my twin brother, the doctors discovered a large melanoma on her leg which required immediate surgery. Fortunately everyone turned out just fine, but my family history and skin color certainly put me at higher risk of developing melanoma and other skin cancers. In fact, studies have shown that getting painful blistering sunburns during childhood is a major risk factor for melanomas, squamous cell carcinomas and basal cell carcinomas later in life. This is why it’s up to parents to protect their children from the sun’s harmful effects.

Sunscreen UVA UVB broad spectrumWhat are the essentials for sun protection? For infants under 6 months of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend any direct sun exposure, as their skin is especially pale and vulnerable. For most children and adults, a combination of sunscreens, proper clothes, and avoidance of peak times from 10am-4 PM (or following your local UV Index) are the major ways to avoid damage.

How effective are clothes? These should be a first line of defense for all ages, but a plain white t-shirt only has a Sunburn Protection Factor of 7, so you could still burn quite easily through this. Most other clothes, if thicker and darker, would offer a more protective SPF 15 or higher. But I still know all too painfully well that even a dark t-shirt won’t be enough if I’m out all day swimming and playing outside.

This is when sunscreens come in handy. A good sunscreen has been shown to decrease risk for skin cancers, most impressively with squamous cell carcinomas. One Australian study showed a 40% decrease in these cancers when using a broad spectrum SPF-16 sunscreen. The evidence for protection against the much deadlier melanomas actually isn’t so strong, with the best study published in 2010 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. This randomized controlled trial followed 1,600 persons over 10 years in Australia, a region with the world’s highest rates of skin cancers. Those who routinely used sunscreen had a 73% reduction in invasive melanoma, although the accompanying editorial questions its statistical significance. Still, I agree with their conclusion that, “the question of its efficacy with respect to melanoma prevention should no longer deter scientists or clinicians from recommending sunscreen use…In addition to sunscreen use, excess exposure to ultraviolet rays should be avoided, clothing should be used to shield skin from the sun, and sun-safe environments should be used for outdoor recreation. In addition, sunscreen use should be paired with regular self-examination of the skin.”

Sunscreen also helps prevent wrinkles and aging of the skin, as was just proven for the first time. This study followed 903 Australians for almost five years, and those who used daily broad spectrum SPF-15 had no detectable increase in skin aging.

But what exactly defines a good sunscreen? Right now your local market probably has an entire wall selling dozens of brands in bright plastic, offering a range of SPF and customized for babies, women’s faces, men… on and on, a confusing mess for us consumers. We can cut through a bit of this with the basics:

Buy a broad-spectrum: just because it says SPF-50 or even 70 doesn’t mean it’s wonderful, as the SPF rating system only measures sunburns from UV-B sunlight and not UV-A sunlight. UV-A rays don’t cause your classic lobster-red burn but it is much more sinister, penetrating deeper into your skin layers and causing more subtle and permanent precancerous DNA damage. This is why it’s crucial to buy sunscreen that follows the US FDA’s new rules and literally says “broad spectrum” on the label. This means it contains ingredients covering both UV-A and UV-B

Get SPF 30, and don’t waste your money with SPF-50 and higher: SPF-15 is a good start since it blocks 93% of UVB, but I agree with the American Academy of Dermatology to use SPF-30 as a standard. SPF-50 and above may seem impressive but clinically offer miniscule extra protection over SPF-30. SPF-30 already blocks 97% of UVB and SPF-50 only one percent more, at 98%. In fact, it’s so misleading for consumers that the EU has banned any labels over SPF-50, and the US FDA is also finalizing this long overdue limitation.

Use more than you think is enough: Research has shown a large percentage of us don’t use enough each time we apply it, and thus aren’t getting the proper protection. A typical adult should be using 1 ounce (30 ml) each time for head to toe protection.

Don’t stay out longer: Many doctors are concerned that people, especially children, stay out in the sun longer after applying sunscreen and actually increase their risks for melanomas, forgetting to reapply as directed or not using enough in the first place.

Use it all year: this may surprise many, but the AAD also recommends this. Ultraviolet rays are much weaker during other times of year but can still add up to skin damage. You should at least consider always using a daily facial moisturizer which also has at least SPF-15 and apply on your face, ears and neck. I’ve used daily facial aftershave with SPF-20 since my college days, in winter or in summer.

Sunscreens also have many approved chemicals to choose from, which further confuses your consumer choices. Some groups, especially the Environmental Working Group, claim that two common ingredients in sunscreens, oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate (from vitamin A) are harmful to health and thus should not be included in sunscreens. For example, on their web page describing oxybenzone’s dangers, they state toxic issues with “hormone disruption; reproductive effects and altered organ weights in chronic feeding studies; high rates of photo-allergy; limited evidence of altered birth weights and increased odds of endometriosis in women.” However, not one governmental FDA bans these substances, and no major medical organization agrees with their warnings. The majority of research the EWG cites are done on animals or in test tubes and not on humans, and no major research with humans has shown serious dangers. Both of these chemicals have been, and continue to be, approved as safe by the US, the EU and Canada even after more than 20 years of usage. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ position statement on sunscreens has no specific warning against these or any other FDA approved chemicals for sunscreens. The American College of Dermatology published an updated statement last summer restating their support of these two ingredients.

Fortunately, even if you still remain concerned about these ingredients, there are hundreds of sunscreens available which don’t have either of these and can offer excellent broad spectrum coverage for both you and your children. Oxybenzone isn’t even as effective as other chemicals such as avobenzone, so you could search for that instead. And you don’t need retinyl palmitate because it doesn’t even block sunlight and is only added to allegedly help with photo-aging. The American Academy of Pediatrics specifically recommends products with with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as they are physical barriers and don’t get absorbed. If you want more consumer guidance, you can read the independent test results from Consumer Reports or also the sunscreen ingredients guide from Consumer Search, which also reviews natural sunscreens.

Here’s a fun and helpful infographic regarding sunscreens and other summer safety tips, from the folks at Maternity Glow:

 

A 7 Minute Workout That Really Works

“Maximum Results With Minimal Investment”. It sounds like a shady late night infomercial, but it’s actually the subtitle of a recentreview article from the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal. Titled High Intensity Circuit Training Using Body Weight, it made worldwide headlines, especially after the New York Times picked up on it. It discusses the hot topic of high intensity interval training, which essentially means a very short burst of intense exercise plus quick breaks. So instead of the recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise or 90 minutes of strong exercise, you could spend 15 of HIIT, three times a week — and get similar health benefits. Is it too good to be true?

Let’s step back a minute and review the benefits of exercise. Most guidelines, including those from the U.S. CDC, recommend a combination of aerobic activity and muscle strengthening activity based on extensive research showing strong evidence of exercise lowering risks of early death; coronary heart disease; strokes; high blood pressure; diabetes; colon and breast cancer, among others. Even 90 minutes of moderate exercise lowers your risk of premature death by 20%; more is better but the effects start to tail off after 300 minutes, maxing out at 40% reduction.

But very few of us achieve even 30 minutes a week, much less the 90 or 150 minutes recommended. Physical inactivity is one of the world’s leading risk factors for disease, ranked #6 in the USA and #10 in China. That’s why any research showing benefits with less time committment is crucial for our modern societies, all increasingly less active. HIIT got its first boost in 1996 when a Japanese research team led by Professor Izumi Tabata compared moderate intensity training of 60 minutes versus a 4 minute high intensity training on stationary bikes. The HIIT group not only had a similar increase in aerobic activity but also had a much better improvement in anaerobic activity. One study published in 2011 from the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, Southern Illinois University tested overweight college students and found that just one 15 minute session of high intensity activity changed their resting energy expenditure (metabolic rate) for 72 hours. This was just as effective as a more routine 35 minute workout. Another study from the Faculty of Medicine, University of New South Wales showed that a 15 minute HIIT workout three times a week, compared to more traditional longer workouts, actually had better outcomes losing total body fat as well as insulin resistance. I consider these latter improvements very significant as diabetes continues to skyrocket right along with obesity in most countries.

When it comes to exercise, I confess I am much more sloth-like than a fitness freak, so I love the idea of a quick fix for health which actually works. I first heard about HIIT last autumn and started to do a 5 minute routine each morning. I went all out for 30 seconds performing as many squat thrusts as I could, then took 10 second breaks, then repeated 10 times for a total of 5 minutes. I confess that I stopped this routine after a month, as I do with most of my ambitions for exercise. But I definitely had felt stronger and more alert during those weeks, and I certainly felt that achy muscle sensation after these sessions. Last week I started this newly publicized 7 minute routine, combining 30 second intervals with circuit training. With circuit training, you rotate your exercises between focused muscle groups, and finishing the entire routine ideally will have covered all muscle groups. You can choose any exercises for HIIT, but one additional benefit of this particular cycle is that you don’t need any weights or machines, just your own body, a wall and a chair. You can perform this anywhere, from your hotel room to your office and home. Here’s an image of the routine, from the original New York Times page:

Each exercise should be done for 30 seconds, with 10 seconds of rest in between, for a total of 7 minutes and 30 seconds. You could also repeat this cycle one of two more times for added benefit. It’s important to take these very short breaks as it increases the healthy metabolic response. You will definitely need help keeping track of these seconds, and I found a wide collection of apps for smartphones and tablets which can be custom set to beep at the correct intervals. Just search your app store for HIIT, Tabata or “interval timer” and take your pick.

The key here is to really push yourself, not take a leisurely pace. In terms of intensity, most of these research papers’ recommendations mention “unpleasant” or “discomforting”. Many papers also mention something called VO2max, which is officially measured using oxygen sensor machines but otherwise generally correlates to 100% of your maximum heart rate. Thus we all should know our maximum heart rate, and fortunately this is easy to calculate. You can find online calculators, otherwise you can do the calculation yourself. The formula for maximum workout heart rate, calculated in a 2001 research paper, = 208 – .7 * age.  For example, I am 45 years old and my maximum heart rate (VO2max) is 208 -.7*45 = 177 beats per minute. If I wanted to reach the 150 minutes a week goal of moderate exercise, my target heart rate for moderate exercise would be 60% of max: 0.6 x 177 = 106 beats per minute. The recommended target for more intense exercise is 80% of max, which for me is 142. I usually get up to this rate with a thirty minute treadmill or elliptical machine workout, and quite honestly it didn’t feel too uncomfortable at all. For the more aggressive HIIT therapy, shooting for 90-100% maximum heart rate works out to 159-177 beats per minute. After I performed the above routine I definitely felt a bit “unpleasant” with a pulse of over 160 — exactly where I should be.

So now I’ve finally run out of excuses for not exercising. I can simply get up 10 minutes earlier each day or just be more efficient in the morning, and perform one or two cycles of this routine, ideally three times a week. Add this to my bicycling to and from my clinic and I can finally hold my head up high when I give my standard lifestyle lecture to my patients.

I think this type of evidence-based exercise research is powerful and certainly has altered my usual speech to patients. I previously would always mention the usual recommended minutes of exercise (150 moderate, 90 intense) but now can make it even more appealing: 15 minutes, three times a week. Certainly this wouldn’t appeal to people who already exercise or play sports. And data is still lacking on the long-term benefits and risk reductions from HIIT. But for the silent majority like myself who do almost no activity, HIIT routines are clearly far better than nothing, and could save millions of lives worldwide.

 

My New York Times Chinese version is here.

What’s The Best Bedtime For Kids?

A good night’s sleep is crucial for all of us, but especially for children. My Alex is now 17 months old and is pretty good with his routine, being put to bed at 8 pm and usually waking up around 7:30 am. Along with a nap or two, he easily gets his recommended 12 hours a day of sleep. But our upstairs neighbors’ toddlers are bouncing on our ceilings until at least 10 pm most nights. Many Chinese parents tell me their child goes to bed at 9, 10 or even 11 pm — much later than the typical children of my expat and American colleagues. What explains this cultural difference, but more importantly — is either one healthier for a child?

One study from 2005 confirmed my personal observations that Chinese children not only go to sleep later than American children, they also wake up earlier. This comparative survey showed that Chinese children in elementary school sleep a full hour less than American children (9.25 vs. 10.2 hours); more worrisome were the Chinese children’s complaints of daytime sleepiness.baby sleeping on big pumpkin

The main issue isn’t so much what time your child goes to bed: more importantly is their total amount of daily sleep, including naps (which very few children over five years take). Sleep research has shown that preschool-aged children need 11-12 hours, while school-aged children need at least 10 hours, and teens need 9-10 (infants need 16-18, and adults need 7-8). If your five year old is going to bed at 9:30 and waking up at 6:30 and already no longer takes naps, then their 9 hours a day of daily sleep isn’t enough for their long term health.

One of the main problems with insufficient sleep is the daytime sleepiness, an obvious consequence of not sleeping enough. A fascinating series of tests in children in China just published this year showed that insufficient sleep and daytime sleepiness both lead to worse school performance. Most of these children went to bed at 9-9:30 am and almost all got up at 7 am, causing a daily sleep debt of 1/2-1 hour for many children. While that may seem like a small amount, like any debt, it must be paid back, and most children cannot recover all of this lost time by sleeping late on weekends. Over time, this cumulative sleep deficit causes problems with attention spans, motivation, and also achievements on tests. Researchers hypothesize that the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which processes attention, creative processing, motivation, and abstract reasoning, is especially vulnerable to poor sleep. They conclude that “our results provide a cautionary tale for the practice in Chinese society that children spend a lot of time on studies even with the sacrifice of sleep time.”

One good bit of news from the same study describes how delaying school start times even by just a half hour can significantly improve sleep duration and daytime sleepiness. In their interventional study with six primary schools in Shanghai, delaying school openings from 7:30 to 8 or 8:30 gave the children almost an hour of extra sleep — and more importantly, less complaints of daytime sleepiness. This fits with studies in other parts of the world and supports the growing movement, led by pediatricians, to delay school opening times to 8:30 am. Just doing this could allow better sleep and improved test scores for all students!

Besides school performance, poor sleep also leads to an increased risk of overweight and obesity in children (as well as adults). A 2007 meta-analysis of 36 studies across the world showed a strong, independent association between short sleep duration and weight gain in children, which continues into adulthood. One study of 500 adolescent twins in Anhui, China showed an association between less sleep and more weight gain. Another survey of over 4,000 children in rural northeast China found that obese children were more likely to have insufficient sleep (less than 7.5 hours, including naps). While this isn’t a cause-and-effect, the association certainly is worrisome. There may actually be a physiological base to this, as research shows that inadequate sleep causes changes in the hormones which control appetite. Less sleep leads to less leptin and more grehlin, which increases our instinctive hunger reflex. Since the obesity rate in Chinese children is rising alarmingly, I think all parents at least should consider proper sleep in this context.

I can’t control the noisy kids upstairs, but in my own home I’m happy that we’ve taught Alex good sleep patterns, and we have plenty of leeway for 8:30 or 9 pm times if needed, all the way until his teen years. And when we choose schools we would definitely consider later start times as a positive factor.

 

Can E-Cigarettes Save Your Life?

secondhand smoke electronic cigarettes
One of the most challenging patient encounters for any family doctor is a discussion with long term smokers about quitting. Not because we don’t realize how bad smoking is — of course both doctor and patient know it’s a deadly habit. But it truly is very difficult to quit, no matter what we doctors say or offer. We try this and that, and patients quit and often restart, and the cycle of addiction continues. That’s why any new treatment that can really help the world’s smokers — who include more than half of all men in China – to quit smoking would be a medical miracle.

Enter the electronic cigarette, the battery-powered contraption that allows people to smoke tobacco-free, by vaporizing liquid nicotine and other additives. Though they still account for just a tiny sliver of the market in most countries, e-cigarettes have begun to explode in popularity over the last couple of years, including in China, where the vast majority of e-cigarettes are assembled. The controversy surrounding the product has erupted in turn. Are they a miracle, or a mirage? Any casual reader of the news knows that there’s a massive worldwide debate among doctors and public health experts regarding e-cigarettes. Many experts argue passionately they should be made available to all. Others say that the potential health risks have yet to be fully understood and that they should be treated just like a regular cigarette, to be regulated or even banned pending further study. I stand in the pro-e-cigarette corner — for now, at least — provided the production, distribution and marketing of the product is properly monitored and regulated.

The first job of a doctor is to “do no harm”, and can we reliably say that electronic cigarettes do no harm? There is far from a medical consensus on this, and the World Health Organization finally added their input just this month in their new report, calling electronic cigarettes an “evolving frontier filled with promise and threat for tobacco control.” They find “currently insufficient evidence to conclude that e-cigarettes help users quit smoking or not.” They also strongly urge regulations to protect children, including severe restrictions on advertising as well as any flavoring or packaging which is proven to be attractive to children.

I do agree that e-cigarettes do present some potentially serious reasons for concern. Children can accidentally drink the nicotine liquid they contain, causing serious stomach problems, even though responsible parents already know that any potentially harmful chemicals should always be locked away from children. I’m also worried that more and more teenagers are starting to think that e-cigarettes are cool, especially based on the advertising. More than 260,000 American youths who had never smoked a cigarette before tried e-cigarettes in 2013, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in August, up more than three-fold from about 79,000 in 2011. But a reassuring new survey from the UK’s public health charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) shows that the vast majority of children trying e-cigerettes also are smoking regular cigarettes, and 98% of children who have never smoked at all have still never tried an electronic cigarette.

Many critics of e-cigarettes have focused on this potential problem with children, but the fact remains that right now, tens of millions of chronic smokers worldwide are at great immediate risk of health problems. Here in my family medicine practice, when I have a patient in front of me with a 30-year history of smoking a pack a day, I am acutely aware that this person has just crossed a very dangerous medical milestone. Such 30-pack-year smokers have such a greater risk for cancers, heart disease and all-cause mortality that the US Preventive Service Task Force now recommends that all such smokers get an annual chest CT to look for lung cancer . I have a professional and ethical obligation to try everything to save this person’s life, and I would recommend that they try any means possible to quit — including e-cigarettes.

Girl Holding Traditional And Electronic Cigarette

The anti-e-cigarette crowd will often say that data on the health effects is poor, and it’s true that until recently there were few strongly designed studies. But now there are a couple of better studies called randomized controlled trials, and we should re-examine our previous stances based on this new, firmer evidence.

The first, called the ECLAT study, was published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE in early 2013. It followed 300 smokers in Italy for one year, giving them three months of different nicotine doses of e-cigarettes. None of these smokers initially were interested in quitting smoking. At the end of the twelve month study, 13% of the higher-dose group had quit, compared to 9% from the lower-dose group and 4% from the placebo group. Also, the great majority of quitters (73%) were no longer using their e-cigarettes, which I find a reassuring argument against those who fear that smokers will replace one addiction with another.

An even better research trial was the ASCEND study, published by the medical journal Lancet late last year, which finally gave us data comparing e-cigarettes to nicotine patches, a commonly used therapy to help people quit smoking. In this randomized controlled trial of 657 smokers in New Zealand, 7.3% of the e-cigarette users stopped smoking at 12 months, a better result than the 5.8% in the nicotine patch group (and 4% in the placebo group). Nicotine patches are notoriously unhelpful for most of my patients, and this study suggests that e-cigarettes may be more useful than patches, which should be welcome news to all doctors on the front lines of this battle against smoking.

Besides those two trials, a few review articles published in these last few months also add much needed intellectual weight to this important debate. One review just published last July in the medical journal Addiction concluded that e-cigarettes “are likely to be much less, if at all, harmful to users or bystanders” than cigarettes. Another systematic review just published last March concluded that, “electronic cigarettes are by far a less harmful alternative to smoking and significant health benefits are expected in smokers who switch from tobacco to electronic cigarettes.”

In terms of public health impact, I generally agree with the recent comments from the European Journal of Public Health, stating in an editorial that ” it is simply too early to know” exactly how effective or safe are e-cigarettes. But they also stress in a quote: “As nicotine addiction expert Professor Michael Russell wrote in 1976, ‘people smoke for the nicotine but they die from the tar’. E-cigarettes deliver the nicotine without the tar, as their use involves no combustion. Common sense therefore dictates that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than cigarettes, and for the individual smoker who cannot or does not want to quit, there is little doubt that switching to e-cigarettes will be beneficial.”

If we limited use of e-cigarettes only to smokers trying to quit, then we could probably save many of the six million annual deaths worldwide from smoking. However, I am very uncomfortable with e-cigarette companies’ aggressive marketing campaigns on TV and other mass media, often targeted to youth, trying to make them hip and cool. It brings to mind the infamous Joe Cool advertising campaign from 1987-97 which attracted many new smokers to the Camel brand, and made Joe Camel as recognizable as Mickey Mouse among six year old children. If a certain percentage of people who never considered smoking suddenly try an e-cigarette and then move on to real cigarettes (the “gateway drug” theory), then the long-term risks could outweigh the benefits.

Because of this, I do think that governmental health authorities should regulate the marketing as well as availability of e-cigarettes, particularly as it concerns minors. I think they should be locked up right next to the nicotine patches on the shelves in all pharmacies, with proof of age over 18 required to purchase them. And I certainly think almost all types of advertising should be banned, as well as limits on the kid-friendly flavoring and coloring. But I don’t think regulation should go overboard, by requiring a prescription for it, for instance. I also feel it’s counterproductive to ban e-cigarette use in all public places, but perhaps for now such bans aren’t totally unreasonable, as we wait clearer data on risks.

I should disclose here that I am an occasional fan of smoking mini-cigars, and last year I bought an electronic pipe for myself, mostly to satisfy my craving for the nicotine rush without reaching for a real cigar. So I can personally empathize with a smoker’s addiction, and I understand firsthand why e-cigarettes can be successful in a way that a nicotine patch will never be: they still allow you that habitual sensation of smoking — holding, puffing, seeing the smoke — without nearly the same severe health risks to yourself and to others nearby.

Some people argue that you’re replacing one addiction with another, and I have two things to say to that: first, the trial above proves that only a small percentage of quitters continue to use e-cigarettes. Second, and more importantly: I would much rather have any smoker hooked on nicotine via an e-cigarette than from continuing to burn tobacco. Again, I can’t stress this enough: nicotine itself does not cause cancer or any chronic lung or heart disease. ‘People smoke for the nicotine but they die from the tar’, as Dr. Russell said four decades ago.

Let’s go back to my title, “can an e-cigarette save your life?” If you’re a smoker for many decades and you now switched completely to e-cigarettes, then yes, you may have just saved your life. If only 10% of all smokers in China switched to e-cigarettes, that could save countless thousands of lives every year.

If a series of new studies comes along that proves that long term risks actually are worse than benefits, then I will reassess my position. But for now, I will continue to endorse this therapy to my patients. I believe it would be unethical not to.

 

Chinese translation of this article is available in my health column in the New York Times China edition

UHT Milk: Is It Safe — and Nutritious?

uht

When I moved to China eight years ago, I was quite shocked at seeing milk in small boxes piled high on store shelves — at room temperature! With expiration dates longer than six months! How could this be safe — and nutritious? Like most other Americans, our milk was bought and sold at refrigerator temperatures, and kept fresh only for a week or so.

One of the greatest public health advances in the modern world is pasteurization. All milk must be sterilized after being delivered from the cow (or sheep or goat), mostly to kill dangerous bacteria and spores that otherwise can seriously harm and even kill people. To kill the pathogens, milk is exposed to high heat at specific lengths of time — this is called pasteurization, named after the famous 19th century French scientist Louis Pasteur. Heating not only kills pathogens but also slows down spoilage, which is triggered by other sets of bacteria.

Pasteur’s heating technique doesn’t kill all bacteria, which is why it must be kept cool and used within a couple of days after opening. Normal pasteurization heats milk to around  70 – 75 °C for 15 seconds, — but the newer technique heats at up to 150 °C for 5 seconds. This is why it is called ultra-high temperature (“UHT”) milk, which is what you see written on these cartons. At such a temperature, all harmful pathogens, including spores, are killed, as well as the enzymes which could spoil the milk, which is why you can keep at room temperature for months. The milk also goes directly into the container after heating, which eliminates possible contamination.

Pouring milk in the glass on the background of nature.

But what about nutrition — surely this higher temperature must destroy vitamins and other molecules? While there are some very minor changes, all of the major governmental and nutritional sites I’ve seen, including the US CDC; the European Union; and New Zealand all state the same essential facts, summed up by the US CDC: “all of the nutritional benefits of drinking milk are available from pasteurized milk without the risk of disease that comes with drinking raw milk.” And while I’ve read reports that milk’s enzymes are damaged even more with UHT processing, as the US CDC again summarizes, “the enzymes in raw animal milk are not thought to be important in human health.” 

Most Europeans will find my initial hesitancy of UHT milk quite amusing, as it’s become the popular choice in most EU countries for many years. In China, almost all milk in stores is still the traditional pasteurized milk sold from the chilled containers, with UHT mostly still only available as imported brands in expat and upscale supermarkets. Fortunately, this UHT milk is now easily available on all major shopping websites for home delivery anywhere in China.

I have many patients and online readers, both expat and local Chinese, who are desperate to find quality milk sources ever since the melamine scandal of 2008 — especially for their children. My response to all is that UHT milk is a great choice — especially imported, and why not get organic as well!  Such milk certainly is a far better choice for toddlers than toddler formula, which has no medical indication from any pediatric groups anywhere for its preference over milk.

I drink imported organic UHT milk mostly as a food safety precaution, but I also feel very reassured that my toddler son and family are all drinking milk 100% free of pesticides, heavy metals and growth hormones, from cows fed on grass in healthy organic farms. Given all the constant uncertainly here with food safety scandals, why not have some peace of mind with your milk?