Are e-cigarettes really a safer way to smoke?

Each week, CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook and CBS News contributor Dr. Holly Phillips discuss the major medical stories of the week on "CBS This Morning: Saturday."

Smoking: "A health hazard of sufficient importance"
This week, they marked the anniversary of a major landmark in medical history. It was 50 years ago Saturday that the U.S. surgeon general released the first report linking smoking to cancer.

LaPook told the co-hosts that in the 1950s and 1960s “everyone and their mother was smoking,” so the report was a really a breakthrough.

“It was very much glamorized …. in 1965 about 42 percent of American adults smoked, and that’s dropped to about 18 percent, but, still, today about 44 million Americans still smoke," he said. "That’s 440,000 deaths a year and more than a dozen cancers that we know of that are caused by it, so we still have a long way to go.”

Phillips said that the 1964 report set off public health and policy decisions aimed at making it harder for people to smoke.

“It was just an overall public policy, public health awareness campaign, and when you think about it, back in 1964 there were no restrictions on where you could smoke at all. You could smoke in a hospital, on an airplane. You could pretty much light up anywhere, which is hard to imagine nowadays,” said Phillips.

Now, she said, there are 26 states that ban smoking in all public spaces and a lot of cities do as well.

“One of the primary objectives there is to cut down on secondhand smoke, and it’s actually worked. The amount of a chemical that we measure in people’s blood to see if they’ve been exposed to secondhand smoke has dropped in half,” she said. “So that has really protected not just smokers – hoping to get them to quit – but also people around them.”

Even stricter laws are on the horizon, including a new law banning sales to people under 21 in New York City that will go into effect in March.

Concern over more teens smoking e-cigarettes
 With backlash against these regulations, there has also been aggressive marketing to promote electronic cigarettes, which claim to allow the smoker to light up inside.

“It’s liquid that has nicotine, some flavoring and some other chemicals, and it’s heated up with a battery into a vapor, and you get the rush of the nicotine; the problem is it’s not FDA approved or regulated,” said LaPook. “We really don't know everything that’s in it. We don’t know enough research in terms of the long-term risks.”

LaPook said that he spoke to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who is “very much concerned” over e-cigarettes because in 2009 the agency did an analysis of two leading brands and found several potentially dangerous chemicals inside.

“What are the potential dangers of all those? We don’t know, and yet it’s now being marketed as the new cool,” said LaPook.

For Dr. Jon LaPook and Dr. Holly Phillips' full roundup e-cigarettes, watch the video in the player above.

Check out more from Morning Rounds with Dr. LaPook