Mahlet Zeru
SWAT Program Assistant
Leon County Health Department

A clever marketing gimmick designed by the tobacco industry has catapulted the popularity of electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to conventional smoking. E-cigarettes are essentially a mixture of chemicals that contain various flavors with or without nicotine that vaporize in a small battery-driven heating unit and simulate the effects of cigarette smoking when the vapor is inhaled and puffed.  Since e-cigarettes contain vapor as opposed to smoke, the act of consumption is called “vaping.”  Although vaping is advertised as a healthier alternative to smoking and a smoking cessation tool, there have not been any independent studies conducted to support the claim.

Due to the strict regulation placed on sales of tobacco products, e-cigarettes are one of the alternative ways for the tobacco industry to deliver nicotine and make populations dependent on the addictive substance. This is evident in the ways the e-cigarettes are flavored and packaged to attract children.

There have not been any studies that document the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes, but short-term studies have found that the common chemical found in the e-cigarette mixture propylene glycol causes upper airway irritations. The effects of passive or second hand vaping are also unknown; however, the particles released in the vapors reduce indoor air quality. The increase of popularity of e-cigarettes is also attributed to the fact that users can circumvent smoke-free policies. Due to the fairly new nature of the products, public policies are not in place to regulate secondhand exposure. So nonsmokers are at risk, and current smokers who might otherwise quit remain addicted.

Indoor air quality study published in Germany’s Fraunhofer Wilhelm-Klauditz-Institut investigated secondhand vapor emission from various e-cigarettes. When compared with conventional cigarettes, e-cigarettes had lower levels of toxins, but there were still increased levels of acetic acid, acetone, isoprene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. Furthermore, the study found that e-cigarettes emit 20% of the toxins produced by conventional cigarettes. There are no safe levels of toxins released by e-cigarettes; the presence of toxins is hazardous to human health.

Third-hand exposure, which means the smoke or vapor residues on clothes, furniture, and indoor surfaces, is also a concern as it exposes non-smoking individuals to respiratory irritants and carcinogens. Accidental spilling of the e-cigarette liquid might also expose individuals to nicotine via skin absorption.

Although the full health consequences of e-cigarettes are not known, further research needs to be done to determine if vaping is actually less dangerous than smoking before we tout e-cigarettes as a good substitute for smokers who intend to quit; otherwise, we might be encouraging a strategy that will actually reduce the chance of quitting by maintaining nicotine supply.

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