E-cigarettes, originally created in 2003 as an alternative to smoking in China, have grown into a global phenomenon. Since their inception, e-cigs have advanced from their original forms, but the general concept remains the same. The e-cigarette is made up of an optional tip, battery, cartridge and a heating element. The refillable cartridge contains the liquid, commonly made up of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, artificial flavorings and nicotine, used for “vaping.” The user inhales on the e-cigarette in the same fashion as a normal tobacco cigarette, which causes the heating element to vaporize the liquid within the cartridge. The vapor is then inhaled into the lungs and expelled.
So why have e-cigs exploded in popularity? E-cigs have many benefits and remain attractive to people of all ages. The most noticeable benefit of vaping is the absence of cigarette smoke. While vapor is released when “vaping,” the byproduct is mostly water vapor. As a result, the pungent smell that normally characterizes smokers is not present and there are reportedly fewer harmful chemicals than in traditional secondhand smoke.
The costs are also cheaper than traditional cigarettes. After the initial startup cost of e-cigs, which involves purchasing the battery, liquid cartridge, heating element and tip (about $60), the habit is easy to maintain. Users only need to purchase the liquid mixture to refill their e-cig (about $10 per week), which depending on usage, may need to be replaced every week or several weeks. Liquid mixtures can be found in vapor stores, online stores or even convenience stores depending on the desired brand.
The flavor of e-cigs is entirely customizable. The liquid mixtures come in a variety of flavors and nicotine levels to best suit an individual’s needs, with categories like fruits, desserts, drinks and tobacco. There are over a hundred different mixes with common flavors like blueberry or more fanciful flavors like “Pineapple Express,” "Dirty Birdie," bubble gum, apple cinnamon and many more. As e-cigarettes grow in popularity, the list of flavors continues to expand. Currently, e-cigs attract younger generations who have not used cigarettes, and there is a concern that children will be attracted to the colorful flavors as well. On the other hand, smokers are drawn to vaping for the cost savings and perceived lower health risks. Some smokers claim to start vaping as a path toward kicking the smoking habit.
E-cigs do present some dangers. The primary concern is that there is no regulation of e-cigarettes or the liquid mixtures used. This poses potential hazards for users, as the liquid used may contain dangerous levels of chemicals or even chemicals that are not intended to be present. While vendors proclaim to follow safety standards, there remains doubt as to the safety of these products without regulation and standardization.
In addition to the lack of regulation, there has been limited research into the health effects of using e-cigs. While the e-cigarette may have significantly lower levels of carcinogens and chemicals than their cigarette counterparts, it is still unclear if there are any harmful effects from using e-cigs. The vapor released from e-cigs may be water vapor, and labeled as harmless, but secondhand smoke from cigarettes was originally thought to be benign, too. Until there are more long-term studies into the impact of e-cigarettes on health, it is hard to say if this device is truly as revolutionary as it seems.
It is important to keep in mind that e-cigs are a pathway for nicotine, which is responsible for the cravings that characterize smokers and for habit-forming behavior. The nicotine, extracted from tobacco, is one of the ingredients found in the liquid cartridges of e-cigarettes. Liquid nicotine is a very toxic chemical; a small amount on the skin or swallowed can cause vomiting and dizziness among other side effects. While it is easy to claim that liquid nicotine is only hazardous if used improperly, it is important to remember that the liquid cartridges that contain the liquid mixtures are usually colorful and scented, which make them appealing to small children. Children are attracted to the e-cigarette liquid and don’t realize that the substances inside are not as kind as the colors they come in.
At the end of the day, given the current amount of information, e-cigarettes may be a safer alternative to regular cigarettes. However, there isn’t enough information to indicate that e-cigs are without their own side effects. The best way to avoid potential adverse health effects is to avoid nicotine and tobacco products.
Clarence Chu, Class of 2016 – Clarence is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, studying Biochemistry and Anthropology. He is from Orange County California and served as a 2014 intern with the Oasis CATCH Healthy Habits team.