Blowing Smoke: Are Electronic Cigarettes Really Safer?

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Try this scenario on for size.

You’re in a restaurant, minding your own business, when someone sitting at the table next to yours pulls out a pen-like object and starts sucking at one end. After you determine that it must be some sort of cigarette in this person’s mouth, curiosity gets the better of you, good manners fall by the wayside, and you can’t help but stare at this blatant disregard for rules, etiquette, and, oh yeah, the law. What you think is smoke shoots into the air as the person exhales and you wait for someone—A waiter? Manager? Fellow patron? Police officer?—to roughly escort this person out the door. But no one does and—hey, wait a minute—the smell of burned tobacco is oddly absent. 

Electronic Cigarette 101
The man is smoking an electronic cigarette, a tube-shaped device that looks, feels, and, apparently, tastes like traditional cigarettes. Also known as a personal vaporizer, it allows users to enjoy the act of smoking without actually smoking. It’s odorless, smokeless, and can technically be used indoors in places like airports, restaurants, and office buildings (though some people may protest its use for aesthetic reasons). There are disposable and rechargeable models, mini-electric cigarettes, and extra-long ones. Basically, there’s an electric cigarette to accommodate any lifestyle of current smokers. 

Starter electronic cigarette kits sell for about $100 to $150, and include a battery-powered cigarette and replaceable cartridges. In addition to nicotine, the cartridges may also contain flavoring like tobacco, menthol, and cherry. Levels of nicotine can vary by cartridge to mimic light- or full-strength traditional cigarettes. Nicotine-free cartridges are also available. 

Each electronic cigarette is made of three parts: the battery, the vaporizer, and the mouthpiece, where cartridges are placed. Once the user inhales through the mouthpiece, the vaporizer, powered by the battery, produces a smoke-like fume. Many claim that it’s a cleaner, safer, and, over the long term, less expensive alternative to conventional cigarettes. 

Tobacco vs. Vapor
The novelty of these electronic cigarettes can attract children and teenagers, like candy cigarettes did decades ago, which is simply wrong. But if responsibly marketed to adults, the electronic cigarette can be an attractive alternative to tobacco products. 

For currents smokers who are tired of not being able to enjoy their habit freely, the electronic cigarette allows them to “smoke” indoors because it doesn’t burn or combust. Conventional cigarettes contain over 4,000 chemicals, sixty of which are known to cause cancer. Much of the harm from these chemicals is passed through the combustion of the cigarette, or the actual burning of the tobacco. Once it burns and turns into smoke, anyone who breathes it in via secondhand smoke is exposed. With electronic cigarettes, there are only four or five ingredients (propylene glycol, water, glycerin, nicotine, and some flavoring) and the “smoke” is actually vapor, which means that secondhand smoke is not an issue, making the electronic cigarette a safer and less toxic alternative to traditional cigarettes. 


But that’s not to say that there aren’t any health hazards for the user. In May 2009, the Food and Drug Administration’s Division of Pharmaceutical Analysis tested and found trace amounts of diethylene glycol in one of seventeen cartridges provided by two different electronic cigarette vendors. Diethylene glycol is related to propylene glycol, the main ingredient of the nicotine cartridges that provides the smoke-like vapor when inhaled or exhaled. Propylene glycol is not only safely used in smoke machines (at theatres, dance clubs, etc.), it’s an FDA-approved solvent for many pharmaceutical formulations. While experts consider propylene glycol harmless, diethylene glycol is regarded as hazardous to humans and not allowed for use in food and drugs. This was enough evidence for the FDA to ban the importation of electronic cigarettes from China. But how harmful are the trace amounts? And how does it affect us over the long term? 

Tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs)—the most potent carcinogens found in tobacco and tobacco smoke—were detected in some of the cartridges tested that used tobacco flavoring. But TSNAs are also found in nicotine gum, which are considered safe by the FDA and are approved as cessation devices by the Nicotine Dependence Center at the Mayo Clinic. 

The bottom line is that there isn’t enough evidence yet for anyone to make concrete conclusions on how bad the electronic cigarette really is. As an alternative to tobacco products, you probably have a better chance of hanging on to some semblance of good health if you use it. And using electronic cigarettes allows smokers to return to the land of the living: restaurants, bars, airports, and office buildings, to name just a few now-restricted places. Proponents of the cigarettes say that they may also be helpful as a first step in an attempt to quit smoking because they deliver nicotine without some of the traditionally dangerous by-products like arsenic, carbon monoxide, and tar. 

Call me old-school, but the idea of an electronic cigarette seems strange to me. But the times, they are a-changing. And the electronic cigarette may be part of a whole new wave of guilty pleasures created for us by technology wizards.


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