By ELLICE PATTERSON ’16
E-cigarettes, devices that use small batteries to atomize pure nicotine, have helped make smokeless tobacco a hot trend across the country. The popularity of e-cigarettes derives from the smokeless vapor that eliminates both secondhand smoke and the smell of burning tobacco. Vapor smoke also allows users to smoke without setting off fire alarms and limits negative health impacts on neighbors, making the devices that emit it particularly popular among college students.
Before I began using e-cigs, I was enticed by the ads and the different flavors. I was unsure about the potential health hazards that e-cigarettes could cause, and decided to give them a try. I had never smoked before, but soon I was smoking apple e-cigs up to twice a day. I believed that the vapor the e-cigarettes emitted wasn’t dangerous like real smoke, and I began to wonder why people would place restrictions on the devices at all. I also began to wonder why a consumer had to be 18 to purchase an e-cig, or why the devices could only be sold where traditional cigarettes are also for sale.
Other Wellesley students seemed just as perplexed by the trend, even those who regularly use the devices. One Wellesley student had her first e-cig in a social setting where she was able to see the smoke without actually smelling it. She was intrigued and has been smoking bubble gum flavored e-cigarettes daily ever since. However, she admitted to knowing only the mechanics of the cigarettes, unaware of any hazards they might present to her health.
Armed with the knowledge that too many e-cig users didn’t know enough about the devices they used daily, I decided to investigate.
Outside of the United States, e-cig use is more heavily regulated. Canada, Australia and Turkey have already banned the sale, importation and possession of e-cigarettes.
However, the hazards of e-cigarettes are not as well-advertised as the hazards of regular cigarettes. Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist, is credited with inventing e-cigarettes in 2003, and the devices made their entry into American markets between 2006 and 2007. Their relatively new presence hasn’t allowed experts enough time to analyze the long-term health effects of the devices. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not yet regulate e-cigarettes, meaning that the e-cigarette industry isn’t legally obligated to tell consumers exactly what is in their products.
However, when the FDA tested a small number of e-cigarettes in 2009, it found that they contain diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze and found to be toxic to humans, as well as other tobacco-specific carcinogens. They also found that all of the e-cigarette brands that were labeled “no nicotine,” except for one brand, in fact had low levels of nicotine in their products.
The FDA attempted to ban the sale of e-cigarettes, but Soterra Inc., an e-cigarette company, fought back. In 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of Soterra, saying, “the FDA had cited no evidence to show that electronic cigarettes harmed anyone.”
E-cigarettes have also garnered publicity for their potential health benefits. The Lancet, a British medical journal, found that e-cigarettes could be more helpful than nicotine patches in weaning smokers off traditional cigarettes. E-cigarettes were found to lessen the relapse rates of nonsmokers, helping more people quit smoking permanently than the nicotine patch did.
The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), an independent professional organization representing thousands of physicians worldwide, echoed these findings. The RCP commented on the potential for e-cigs to improve public health because they provide an alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes. E-cigarettes don’t produce dangerous secondhand smoke, so if their use becomes more prolific as traditional cigarette use decreases, the non-smoking public could develop fewer respiratory or heart conditions.
Do the potential health benefits of e-cigarettes outweigh their hazards? For smokers, the benefits seem to outweigh the negative consequences, but for those who don’t yet smoke and simply recreationally turn to e-cigs among peers, it might be wise to wait for research results on the devices’ long-term health consequences.