Advertisements for electronic cigarettes, project the product as a device using innovative technology, designed to provide an experience very similar to smoking, but devoid of the accompanying health hazards associated with smoking tobacco cigarettes. The product is portrayed as being a more healthy alternative to smoking, without due emphasis on the effects of the product itself on a standalone basis. The situation bears a similarity to Bayer’s 1898 launch of diacetylmorphine, touted as a non-addictive, miracle drug to be used in place of morphine. A mention of the drug’s street name, Heroin will immediately conjure up vivid images of the product’s subsequent notoriety.
An electronic cigarette is a gadget for inhaling nicotine. Unlike tobacco cigarettes which are burned to generate nicotine laced smoke, electronic cigarettes use the power of a battery to convert a liquid containing nicotine into a vapour which is inhaled by the user, also called ‘vaping’.
The main constituents of an e-cigarette are a battery, heater, mouthpiece, electronic parts and a cartridge with liquid containing nicotine, flavour, glycerine and propylene glycol. Whenever the user draws at the mouthpiece, the heating element is switched on, heating air which vapourises some of the contents of the cartridge. E-cigarettes often have an LED at the tip which glows at every drag.
The main advantage of e-cigarettes is their ability to deliver nicotine without the need for burning as this avoids the additional harmful by-products of burning tobacco like carbon monoxide, tar and other chemicals. The risks of burns, fires and second hand smoke are greatly reduced or eliminated.
Even though some studies have shown e-cigarettes to be a much safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes, it would be inappropriate to conclude that they are entirely safe. In this context, it is pertinent to note that the research available on the effects of the use of e-cigarettes is very limited despite the fact that the product has been available in the market for a number of years and is gaining in popularity.
Studies by the FDA have been focusing on two categories of chemicals, the cancer causing tobacco-specific nitrosamines(TSNA) and the toxic diethylene glycol (DEG). The TNSA content of electronic cigarettes was found to be between 500 to 1400 times lower than in tobacco cigarettes while DEG was traced only in one cartridge from the sample tested. A review of 16 studies in the year 2010 revealed that the contents of the cartridge and the vapour generated contained mere trace amounts of cancer causing substances. However, the FDA still issued a warning regarding e-cigarettes primarily because ‘safe limits’ are not yet fixed, so far as TSNA contents are concerned.
With e-cigarettes, a user inhales vapour instead of smoke. One study concluded that the inhalation of vapour from the device for five minutes resulted in increased difficulty in breathing. Propylene glycol, which is one of the ingredients of the liquid in cartridge, can result in inflammation of the respiratory tract and precipitate asthma attacks.
A study of 35 e-cigarette cartridges of varying flavours revealed that many contained harmful chemicals. A separate study found tiny particles of silica as well as metals like chromium, tin and nickel in the vapour. The concentrations in e-cigarettes were in some cases higher than that of tobacco cigarettes. The effect of these chemicals, metals and other substances on the health of users is yet to be ascertained.
Electronic cigarettes have been vital in the efforts of several people to quit smoking. This was confirmed by a study conducted by Italian researchers. Volunteers who smoked, but excluding those deliberately trying to quit, were provided e-cigarettes. After six months, even though no encouragement was provided, it was found that 22 out of the 27 volunteers had reduced smoking by over 50 percent while nine had quit the habit altogether.
E-cigarettes appear to be more effective than other aids to quit smoking like nicotine patches, as the use of the product mimics the use of regular tobacco cigarettes. Studies have found that e-cigarettes with minimum nicotine content still satisfy and greatly reduce the urge to smoke. Most e-cigarette users agree that the product is a workable alternative to tobacco cigarettes, though peer pressure still compels few to revert to the latter.
The evidence, as it stands today, points towards e-cigarettes being preferable to smoking. Over 443,000 Americans die annually from causes related to cigarette smoking, a habit which is extremely difficult to overcome. Over 80 percent of people who quit smoking on their own, relapse in less than a month.
Serious research into the long-term effects of vaping on the health of users is the need of the hour. No doubt, eliminating the nicotine habit is the preferred option over vaping, but till then electronic cigarettes may be the better choice.
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