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What’s An E-Cig? And Is It Safe To Smoke?

by Ari Tsakos

There’s a new tobacco trend that is getting more people to stop lighting up. But public health officials are concerned that even if they aren’t aren’t smoking, they are still inhaling potentially carcinogenic fumes.

Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, are battery-operated products designed to deliver nicotine, flavor and other chemicals. They turn chemicals, including highly addictive nicotine, into an aerosol that is inhaled by the user. Source: FDA.gov

Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, are battery-operated products designed to deliver nicotine, flavor and other chemicals. They turn chemicals, including highly addictive nicotine, into an aerosol that is inhaled by the user. Source: FDA.gov

The new nicotine delivery method that is cheaper, flashier, and sweeping the market remarkably quickly: at my college campus in suburban Maryland, there are now a dozen “Vape stores” selling E-Cigarettes when last year there was only one. And those retailers serve a small school with only about 500 students. About four million Americans are now using E-Cigarettes with the numbers expected to increase dramatically over the next few years. It’s already estimated to be a $2.5 billion market.

The Electronic Cigarette (or E-Cig) is a battery operated nicotine vaporizer, with the most popular models being made of a rechargeable battery, a cartridge filled with E-Liquid that can be disposable or refillable, and an LED light on the end to give it the effect of dragging on a lit ember. When you puff, a heating element powered by the battery boils the liquid in the cartridge to create vapor that is then inhaled. Because of the reusable elements of this set up, despite the initial cost being much more than a pack of cigarettes (anywhere between $30 and $100 for a “Starter Kit”), over the course of a year it is much cheaper than spending $1000+ to maintain a pack-a-day smoking habit.

You can buy E-Cigs online with with plenty of discounts, coupons, and promotions available. Or you can go visit your local Vape Shop. Until recently Nyack had two retail stores that sold E-Cigs, although one has recently closed. “Six months ago there were four Vape Shops in North Jersey. Now there are close to forty,” says Ike Van Vliet, one of the owners of the Nyack Vapes retail business. “Today, there are more Vape shops in California than there are Starbucks. This is all about a healthier alternative and it is catching on.” Van Vliet says customers like E-Cigs because they offer “Tobacco Harm Reduction,” a demand for this product will continue to grow.

Because the E-Cig isn’t a traditional cigarette, legislation and regulation have be slow off the line to handle the sudden explosion of this product. Los Angeles recently put inplace a “vaping ban” in some public spaces, following the path other cities such as New York and Chicago pioneered. The E-Cig is odorless, and “second-hand vape” isn’t a factor with a substance that is closer to water vapor than smoke. The main issues these cities are grappling with are lack of regulation of the E-Liquid itself, and potential for these cigarette stand-ins to find a way around pre-existing tobacco laws, specifically those regarding sale to minors.

Center For Disease Control Director Dr. Tom Frieden says e-cigarettes do more harm than good:

  • If they get another generation of kids more hooked on nicotine and more likely to smoke cigarettes.
  • If they get smokers who would have quit to keep smoking instead of quitting.
  • If they get ex-smokers who have been off nicotine to go back on nicotine and then back to cigarettes.
  • If they get people who want to quit smoking and would have taken medicines to think e-cigarettes are going to help, but they don’t.
  • If they re-glamorize smoking.

Source: CDC director explains what he hates about electronic cigarettes, LA Times 4/29/2014

The fear is that, because E-Cigs can have pleasant flavors (cola, classic tobacco, cinnamon, lemonade, bubblegum, watermelon, and caramel are just a handful of flavor options available) and can be advertized as glamorous on television, kids will pick up the nicotine habit with the E-Cig being a gateway cigarette of sorts. Despite these fears, studies have been done on the demographic that is doing most of the vaping. Milennials, or individuals born between 1977 and 1994, are the majority of vapers, and of the people surveyed in a particular study, 78% had not used tobacco of any kind in the last thirty days after making the switch from an average of 25 cigarettes a day to the E-Cig. (Int J Clin Pract. 2011) The target demographic for the E-Cig is experienced smokers looking for another option, and many have used E-Cigs as a method for kicking the habit all together, despite the FDA banning E-Cigs from being labeled as smoking cessation aids.

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Vape stores represent a new business with low start up costs and a huge market of potential customers intrigued by the cool factor, the novelty of a new product and the lower cost of purchase. But public officials fear that just because retailers say its safer it isn’t necessarily so — too few studies have been done completed on the short- and long-term effects of vaping to substantiate the claims the companies are making that it is a “healthier alternative” to traditional cigarettes.

While the level of toxicity is far less, and there are fewer contaminates than in tobacco, they do still have carcinogens like a standard cigarette. An analysis of two brands also found ultra fine particles of potentially hazardous chemicals (one study found trace amounts of the main component of anti-freeze) as well as metal nanoparticles.  Because the FDA’s bans on E-Cigs being marketed as a route to quitting, E-Cigs were able to skirt around the rigorous testing that products like Nicorette had to go through, further limiting knowledge regarding potential health risks, as well as regulatory legislation.

E-cigs might be taking a chunk out of the traditional cigarette market, but they have a competitor of their own: digital vaporizers. The E-cigarette heats an e-liquid which is turned into vapor.  “Vaporizers work by gradually heating the material with warm air vaporizing the ingredients without being burned,” according to blog.smokazon.com. HotVapes.com puts it even more succinctly: “When you smoke you burn tobacco and exhale smoke. When you vape you atomize e-liquid and exhale water vapor.”

As it currently stands, not much is known about the effects of long term usage of either E-cigs or vaporizers and their possible risks. I can say, however, that my fellow Milennials that have made the switch are ecstatic about them. I’m sure that as more and more analog smokers switch to digital devices to get their nicotine fixes, there will be more variations as well as regulation to make these devices, hopefully, truly safer alternatives to smoking.

Ari Tsakos, a sophomore at St. John’s College in Annapolis, is studying philosophy.

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