Looking for an alternative to smoking because of the health risk of inhaled smoke and the smoking bans, but not sure if the new, smokeless electronic or e-cigarette is right for you? The e-cigarette appears to be a trend right now, and people have been buying them off the internet and from mall kiosks. The positive side is that you won’t be inhaling the tobacco chemicals and will not smell like smoke, and those around you won’t be bothered by secondhand smoke. But do your research, as many of the articles online regarding e-cigarettes contradict each other. While they promote a “healthy” way to smoke, are they really a safe alternative?
The electronic cigarette was invented in China in 2002 and introduced to the Asian market in 2005. It is an electrical device that looks like a real cigarette, cigar, pipe, or like a pen, and simulates the act of smoking by producing an inhaled mist that contains nicotine. Most e-cigarettes contain three parts: a battery, atomizing chamber, and a nicotine cartridge with a mouth piece. The rechargeable battery is used to light up the tip to simulate the glow of a burning cigarette, and to heat up the nicotine solution. The atomizer wicks a small amount of the liquid nicotine solution from the cartridge, the battery heats it up and vaporizes it. The nicotine is dissolved in a solution of water and propylene glycol, although some electronic products may be propylene glycol-free. Once heated, the vapor gets inhaled into the lungs. The cartridges can be purchased in different flavors and in up to seven different levels of nicotine (from zero to xxx-high).
Although many of the articles on the internet claim the propylene glycol in the nicotine cartridge is safe, this is the same compound used in automobile anti-freeze, and the de-icers used at airports. A University of Kentucky study found several chemicals including: acetone (found in nail polish remover), B-nicotyrine (cancer-causing agent derived from nicotine), formaldehyde (cancer-causing agent), diethylene glycol (highly toxic impurity of propylene glycol which was found in one sample of the USFDA). Nicotine levels in the cartridge could contain up to 500 mg of nicotine, 10 times a lethal dose. A Food and Drug Administration report also found levels of carcinogens and toxic contaminants that should be a concern.
Quality control is also an issue. Six brands of e-cigarettes were acquired over the internet by a toxicologist at the University of California, and none of the devices were labeled clearly with the nicotine levels, expiration dates or other information. Most of the cartridges leaked onto her hands, and all were defective in some way. The cartridges need to be refilled with the nicotine solution, and any solution that gets on the skin can be absorbed. Some of the companies also claim to put vitamins in their e-cigarettes.
Electronic cigarettes should only be used by those smokers trying to quit. However, the laundry list of flavors from tobacco (Kool, Winston), juice flavors (strawberry, fruit punch), herbs (clove, ginger), and beverage flavors (chocolate, coffee, cola) as well as several levels of nicotine densities and liquid base formulas could provide up to 7,000 different combinations, according to one company. Some minors may start using the product because it is perceived as a safer, “green” and “healthy” option. Others could buy the liquid nicotine and use it on their skin or as drops, which could lead to nicotine poisoning or have deadly consequences. Some kits can start at a low $19.
Tobacco contains about 5,000 known chemicals, with as many as 100,000 more that haven’t been identified. Since the e-cigarette does not contain tobacco, it does not contain all the tobacco chemicals, but almost all the studies on its safety have been paid by the electronic cigarette companies. Some users have reported problems with their lungs and throats after using e-cigarettes. The devices have not been approved by the FDA and are not regulated.