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The Facts About E-Cigs

Think about your choices before you vape
E-cigs come in many sizes and types, but they’re still so new to the market that no studies have been done on long-term usage. Photo ©Shutterstock
E-cigs come in many sizes and types, but they’re still so new to the market that no studies have been done on long-term usage. Photo ©Shutterstock

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, and their strange, odor-free smoke are being seen on military posts increasingly as more and more Soldiers view them as alternatives to traditional tobacco products. Chances are you’ve seen someone puffing (“vaping”) the strange glowing sticks—maybe even in a restaurant or the grocery store—and there’s no question they have advantages over cigarettes (no offensive odor being one of them). But are the increasing number of “vapers” just picking a different poison? Here’s what we know for sure.

E-cig users smoke with no fire. There are many models of e-cigs, with lots of different features, but they all work similarly: a battery powers a small atomizer, which uses electricity to turn a liquid into vapor. The liquid varies in content but normally contains some amount of nicotine and some kind of flavoring dissolved in an odorless liquid like propylene glycol (the same as in asthma inhalers). The user inhales the vapor that is produced by the atomizer, their lungs absorb the nicotine, and water vapor is exhaled.

Vaping is on the rise, especially among the young. A study released last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that e-cig use in middle and high school students had doubled in just one year, from 2011 to 2012, with 10 percent of those polled saying that they had tried them. Usage by adults also grew in that same period, with another CDC study finding that the number of adult smokers who had tried e-cigs had risen from 10 percent to 21 percent. 

New products mean big questions. Lawmakers and regulators have scrambled to catch up to the booming e-cig industry. Many retail outlets have voluntarily restricted sales to minors, but there’s no law requiring it. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first tried to regulate e-cigs as “drug delivery devices,” but they were shot down. Now, despite the fact that there is no tobacco used in producing e-cigs, the FDA is attempting to classify them as tobacco products, which would make sales to minors illegal. One of the biggest question marks with e-cigs is that, because the market is young, different manufacturers are putting out products that vary widely in nicotine content, device quality and safety, with some users reporting faulty equipment causing fire or even small explosions. 

Nicotine is addictive and can be harmful. Whether you’re getting the drug from a cigarette, chewing tobacco or a patch, nicotine is extremely addicting, and e-cigs aren’t exempt from its dangers. Poisoning from liquid nicotine has risen in recent years. While nicotine itself hasn’t been classified as cancer-producing, research by the American Society for Cell Biology says it can contribute to heart disease. Pregnant women should avoid using nicotine in any form as it can cause birth defects.

Vaping can help smokers quit. Last year, The Lancet, a leading medical journal, published a study on the link between e-cigs and people trying to quit smoking. The success rate for quitters in the study was just as good as for those using nicotine patches. Maybe more striking? Even smokers who couldn’t quit entirely decreased their smoking dramatically, with 57 percent of e-cig users cutting their smoking at least in half.

Smokers and vapers are taking a risk. Most of the research so far shows that vaping is in fact better for you than smoking. Many of the 70 known carcinogens in cigarette smoke come from the process of burning tobacco, and e-cigs at least leave these out. If you’re a smoker and you’re looking for a way to help you quit, e-cigs might be able to help. But there are no studies to determine whether long-term usage is safe. Don’t forget, cigarette advertisements used to show doctors recommending their products. Until long-term studies are complete, there’s no way to know just how safe e-cigs are. And when it comes to your health, it’s always better not to play with fire.