Vaping, e-cigs, vape pens or e-cigarettes —no matter what you call them, e-cigarettes are wildly growing in popularity, with currently more than 2.6 million users in the United Kingdom1 alone.
Entire stores devoted just to selling e-cigarettes or vape pens and a wide array of accessories have been steadily popping up over the past few years, as several different models, colors and styles have debuted, along with a range of different flavors and aromas that particularly seem to appeal to younger generations.
The concept of the e-cigarette first started as a safer and healthier alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes2. People who have been struggling for years to quit say they have found it easier to wean themselves off of tobacco by first switching to e-cigarettes.
Longtime smokers like the feel of a skinny cigarette-shaped object in their hands that feels just like holding a traditional cigarette, as well as the act of inhaling and exhaling a vapor that feels just like smoke. Yet, vapors from e-cigarettes are much less damaging to the lungs, and also don’t contain many of the other harmful chemicals that tobacco cigarettes do, like carbon monoxide and tar. Many experts say the tar in cigarettes is the most harmful ingredient of all, and is the biggest “killer” of smokers. Many e-cig users also say their “smoker’s cough” has gone down significantly since switching.
Plus, the smell is much less irritating to nearby non-smokers than secondhand tobacco smoke. For that reason, many e-cigarette smokers say it allows them to bypass the non-smoking rule in many public areas and establishments like bars and restaurants.
However, they may not help lower a smoker’s addiction to nicotine, because most e-cigarettes still contain at least a small amount of nicotine. Some models and liquids have also been shown to contain propylene glycol and glycerine, which are also found in traditional cigarettes3. The vapors in e-cigs can also contain carbonyl compounds like formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acrolein.
What Are Vape Pens and E-Cigarettes and How Do They Work?
When you “puff” on the e-cigarette’s mouthpiece, the heating element—which is powered by the device’s battery—is activated, and the liquid condenses into an aerosol and is then inhaled, delivering a mixture of nicotine and flavorings to the smoker. Different models of e-cigarettes are available on the market, featuring different types of manual or automated delivery systems and temperature controls.
One other feature that many say makes e-cigarettes safer than traditional cigarettes is the fact that there is no fire to be lit. The e-cigarette heats up when you puff on it, turning the liquid into steam, but no match, lighter or any other form of fire is required to smoke it. The heat is generated by the battery and the temperature usually rises to between 65 and 120 degrees Celsius, with a reported maximum atomizer temperature of approximately 250 Celsius4. This leads to fewer combustion byproducts like tobacco cigarettes have, many of which can be carcinogenic, and harmful to a person’s health.
Are E-Cigarettes Harmless?
A majority of health studies say, No, they are not entirely harmless. But while e-cigarettes may not be completely benign, they are still much less harmful than traditional tobacco cigarettes by comparison.
Clinical studies have shown that blood cell counts and other biological markers have shown to be statistically unaffected by exposure to e-cigarette vapors, both for the smokers themselves and any bystanders exposed to it. Comparatively, secondhand tobacco smoke can show up in a bystander’s system in the form of biological markers of irritation within three hours of exposure.
E-cigarette users have also reported some mild side effects including headaches, respiratory tract irritation and digestive problems, and clinical studies have indicated some long-term and short-term side effects like airway resistance, irritation of the airways, redness of the eyes and drying of the throat.
However, it is important to note that e-cigarettes have only been on the market for just over a decade, which is a short time relative to tobacco cigarettes, which have been around for more than a century. E-cigarettes were invented by a Chinese scientist and were first introduced in China in 2005.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have both published statements on the potential health benefits and dangers of e-cigarette smoking, but also say that there has not been sufficient time for long-term studies on actual users.
There have also been some reported dangers of using the devices themselves. Some users have reported being burned by the device, due to fake or faulty mechanisms or battery malfunctions. In a few extreme cases, users have even reported their e-cigarettes exploding from the battery overheating.
Can E-Cigarettes Really Help Me Quit Smoking Tobacco?
That’s a much tougher question to ask. Many doctors say they still have not made up their minds when it comes to the e-cigarette trend. However, surveys show that 95 percent of the general population views e-cigarettes as healthier than traditional cigarettes.
When it comes to quitting, though, on one hand, studies have shown that only 10 percent of smokers that switch from tobacco cigarettes to e-cigarettes have eventually quit altogether. However, statistics do show that it has led to a reduction in the number of tobacco cigarettes smoked per day, in favor of vaping.
As for whether they are healthier, studies do show that e-cigarettes have much less tar, pyrolysis and plasma nicotine content—in fact, only 10 percent of the amount found in tobacco cigarettes. That arguably makes them healthier in comparison, but that’s not the same thing as being “healthy.”
The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives do report a significant reduction in risk with e-cigarettes when compared to tobacco products, though.5
Many elected officials and advisors to the FDA say they are tending toward thinking that the same rules and regulations should be applied to e-cigarettes as are tobacco products. One concern is that the popularity, combined with the exciting array of flavors and aromas, and the idea that they aren’t “real” cigarettes and are less harmful, will make them more appealing to younger people, and perhaps even children. Some officials worry that e-cigarettes will end up serving as “gateway” products that make them want to switch to smoking traditional cigarettes later.
Overall, it appears more research and long-term human studies need to be conducted before society is ready to solidify its position about how safe e-cigarettes really are.
Are you ready to switch from traditional tobacco smoking to vaping?