Are e-cigs really the lesser of two evils?



Claire Grosek











On the shelves are little plastic cylinders in a variety of colors. A child mistakes them as his or her favorite lollipops just before a parent pulls them away. A woman, struggling to quit smoking once her pregnancy test read positive, is recommended to try an alternative solution to curb her craving. A man who has been smoking for the majority of his life has tried and failed to quit smoking over 10 times and resorts to experimenting with lower-dosed vaporizers—or vapes—but consequently uses them more frequently.

These are electric cigarettes and as the number of people who have tried them continues to rise, so does the ignorance of consumers who were misled to believe that electric cigarettes are safe.

Electronic cigarettes, also popularly known as e-cigarettes, e-cigs, vapes or vapor hookahs, are small pen-shaped objects, designed to resemble cigarettes. They release a vapor allegedly free of the harmful chemicals found in cigarettes, yet are still rich in the nicotine to which about 960 million people are currently addicted. The invention of the e-cigarette is largely credited to a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik who created his product to help quit smoking in 2003.

Despite his intentions, the e-cigarette industry has run rampant within a regulation-free market and poses several points to consider regarding the growing industry.


What is actually inside these things?


Electronic cigarettes have several parts: a battery, a vaporizer, an electronic circuit, a replaceable nicotine cartridge and a mouthpiece. According to Michael Steinberd, a professor at Rutgers University Medical School, the e-cigarette delivers vaporized nicotine through the heating of a nicotine-containing solution, producing a visible smoke that can be inhaled and exhaled. No mess, no littering, no problem. Right?

Websites and labels for e-cigs claim that within the replaceable cartridge is a liquid solution containing propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerine, nicotine and “flavorings.” Labels also boast lower concentrations of nicotine, designed with the intention of the smoker experiencing the pleasurable sensation of smoking a cigarette but at a lower intensity. Jonathan Foulds, a founding member of the ATTUD, the Association for The Treatment of Tobacco Use and Dependence, claims that the amount of nicotine advertised often differs from the actual concentration.

So if there is a lower concentration of nicotine, that means they are healthier, right? Regardless of the amount, it is common knowledge that nicotine has adverse effects on the brain. Animal studies demonstrate that the brain, especially that of an adolescent, is sensitive to nicotine and exposure results in long-lasting neurochemical and behavioral changes. In adolescent rats, specifically, researchers have found that nicotine results in long-term cognitive impairment. 

Besides the addictive and widely villainized nicotine, propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine remain widely under-researched and not fully understood. Foulds expresses that there must be long-term randomized trials until researchers can thoroughly grasp the effects of what people are inhaling. Already, single studies have shown that over a tested period of 10 minutes, both smokers and non-smokers have experienced a 44 percent rise in airway resistance when smoking e-cigarettes.

“No,” Foulds concludes. “It is not a harmless vapor.”


Then how are people being misled?


Ironically, the word “safe” can be a very dangerous word in the advertising world. Pamela M. Ling, an associate professor at the University of California San Francisco, has analyzed dozens of electronic cigarette websites that display troubling advertising schemes that try to lure curious consumers. 

Many websites, which she displayed during a “webinar” discussing the issue, feature different advertising tactics aimed to create the idea that their product is safe.  Several of the advertisements display photos of doctors in order to mislead buyers into thinking that they have been researched and approved by licensed doctors. 

Some companies, such as Eluma, market their product as a potential tool to help people quit smoking and feature testimonials claiming that their product helped a person overcome his or her addiction. 

Interestingly, those same websites also market e-cigs as a way to continue smoking “guilt free.”  Some products claim that their e-cigarettes are organic or “green,” and even function as an energy booster, appetite suppressant or a sleep aid.  Often, images display attractive young adults using the product and show sexual images and club culture to entice the young adult population. Some products specialize in targeting women consumers by offering various colors, flavors and even “bedazzled” e-cigs.

Regardless of the tempting advertisements, Ling asserts that e-cigarettes are unregulated devices that are not approved by the Federal Drug Administration for smoking cessation. Recently, some minor tobacco companies have bought these budding electronic cigarette companies. This overlap, she claims, is very dangerous because big tobacco companies have a long history of purposeful misinformation and controversial advertising techniques that could make e-cigs even more dangerous than they may already be. 

However, these advertising techniques pose certain threats. Since e-cigarettes are being marketed as “cool” and are often promoted by sports stars and music companies around the world, many organizations such as ATTUD are concerned with their appeal to minors and non-smokers. While young adults have the highest rates of use, researchers such as Ling, Foulds, and Steinberg fear that e-cigarettes can become a gateway to nicotine addiction among minors and non-smokers. 


How does this affect consumers?


Studies show that 20-30 percent of electronic cigarette users have never smoked before trying the product, thus leading researchers to believe that these people have fallen victim to the misleading advertising that asserts their alleged safety. There is fear that if more tobacco companies start selling e-cigarettes, they may convince their customers to graduate from e-cigs to real cigarettes. 

Another fear is that if tobacco companies manufacture e-cigarettes, they may increase the threshold of nicotine, making their product just as addictive as their tobacco counterparts. And worse, they might continue to claim that e-cigs are without adverse health effects.

The truth is that some of these electronic cigarette companies are profiting on people’s desperate attempts to quit smoking. Researchers fear that by smoking e-cigarettes, addicts will not give up nicotine at all. Foulds warns that unless an individual establishes a set “quit date” from e-cigarettes in an attempt to wean him or herself off nicotine, that person’s efforts may not be successful. 

There is also currently an ongoing debate as to whether or not pregnant women should be advised to substitute carcinogenic cigarettes for supposedly less dangerous e-cigarettes.  There is a gap in research regarding this problem, but Ling suggests that for precautionary reasons, all nicotine should be avoided when pregnant. 

Another danger is that the attractive colors and packaging may mislead younger children into thinking e-cigarettes are not bad for them. Indeed, some of the marketing techniques dangerously resemble those of toys, and because some companies encourage parents to smoke in the house by alleging the safety of e-cigs, children may be more inclined to try e-cigarettes sooner than they would cigarettes.

So far, there is still very little regulation surrounding the growing electronic cigarette industry. Foulds affirms that until regulations regarding quality control, safety standards, child-proofing and stricter laws on sales to minors, electronic cigarettes should be avoided. So far, countries such as Brazil and Australia have taken progressive action in completely banning e-cigarettes until more research is conducted. 

However, we must ask ourselves, is banning electronic cigarettes wise while toxic tobacco cigarettes still dominate that same nicotine market?

The bottom line is, Foulds says, that so far electronic cigarettes can be argued as less dangerous than tobacco cigarettes. But, he continues, e-cigarettes are also likely to be worse for health than inhaling natural air, and we must wait until long-term experiments are conducted to know of any long-term health effects.

The European Union just passed a law that will implement electronic cigarette regulation for 2016. Foulds finds this law odd because the law pertains to only selling the liquid solution if a seller has a license, which arguably will create many loopholes that companies can get around.

Recently, the FDA, while not announcing official regulations as of yet, released statements stating that e-cigarettes have resulted in illness and hospitalization from pneumonia, congestive heart failure, disorientation, seizure, hypotension and other health problems. 

Initial regulations and public announcements such as these are a step in the right direction. However, until researchers, and consequently the public, know about the potential dangers of electronic cigarettes, consumers should practice skepticism and do more research before they decide to commit to the lesser of two evils.