The electronic cigarette was introduced to the U.S. market in 2007 and offers the nicotine-addicted an alternative to smoking tobacco. Most "e-cigs" are similar enough in appearance to be mistaken for regular cigarettes, but one look inside and you'll see the main difference: E-cigarettes don't contain tobacco. Instead, there's a mechanism that heats up liquid nicotine, which turns into a vapor that smokers inhale and exhale. Manufacturers and satisfied customers say that this nicotine vapor offers many advantages over traditional cigarette smoke. But regulatory agencies and some health experts aren't sure. They're asking questions about the possible side effects of inhaling nicotine vapor, as well as other health risks e-cigarettes may pose -- both to users and to the public. Those calling for tight regulations on e-cigarettes claim that these devices should be deemed illegal until the proper research trials have been conducted to prove that they're safe.
Because they contain no tobacco, e-cigarettes aren't subject to U.S. tobacco laws, which means they can be purchased without proof of age, especially online. This raises concerns that e-cigs may be particularly appealing to kids and may encourage nicotine addiction among young people. And while manufacturers of the e-cigarette claim that it's the cigarette you can "smoke" anywhere, regulatory agencies around the world are taking a close look at these gadgets and instituting a range of restrictions on their use.
Proponents of the e-cigarette say they feel better using the device than they did when they were smoking tobacco cigarettes, and that because the e-cigarette is reusable, it saves them money. Some praise the e-cig for helping them quit smoking. But is the e-cigarette as safe as its users -- including celebrities like Katherine Heigl -- believe? Is it a healthier option, or a riskier choice? And what does the FDA have to do with it? Before you consider taking up the e-cigarette habit, read on to get the facts.
10: No Smoking
Electronic cigarettes are designed to look just like regular cigarettes, but there's one major difference: You don't need a match or lighter to use them. Instead, they hold a battery, a vaporization chamber and a cartridge filled with liquid nicotine. Puff on the device as you would a regular cigarette, and the device heats the liquid and changes it to a nicotine-filled vapor. Inhale to deliver the nicotine to your lungs, and then exhale the vapor. It looks like you're smoking a regular cigarette, but there's no smell, because nothing is burning.
9: Safety Concerns
Many regulatory agencies and health experts aren't sure the e-cigarette is safe. While there are hundreds of companies in the United States alone that are making and selling e-cigarettes, manufacturers often don't make specific health or safety claims about their products. They do, however, tout the benefits of e-cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and some health experts are concerned that the side effects of inhaling pure nicotine have yet to be adequately studied, and are therefore unknown. The FDA is also concerned about quality control, asserting that some manufacturers may not adequately disclose all the chemical ingredients in their e-cigarettes, and that the amount of nicotine listed on a cartridge label may not match the actual amount in the cartridge.
8: Nicotine Levels
An electronic cigarette can contain as much nicotine as a regular cigarette -- or more. The amount of nicotine an electronic cigarette delivers depends on the content of the liquid-nicotine cartridge installed in it. Customers can choose cartridges containing nicotine in a range of strengths. Some are comparable to the amount of nicotine in a regular tobacco cigarette; others are closer to that of a light or ultralight cigarette. There are also cartridges that contain liquid without nicotine, for users who want the sensory experience of smoking without its effect.
7: Makers and Sellers
Electronic cigarettes are being sold internationally, and can be easily purchased online. They were originally invented in China by a company called Ruyan, but are now produced by several companies in the United States, Europe and around the world. Because the FDA has seized shipments of electronic cigarettes and their components on the grounds that they are illegal drug-delivery devices, some companies, including the Tennessee-based Pure Enterprises, have begun making e-cigarette products in the United States instead of importing them [source: Kesmodel and Yadron]. Many e-cig manufacturers sell the products online, along with the required cartridges, batteries and other accessories.
6: Not Kid-friendly
Electronic cigarette manufacturers are careful not to directly market their product to young people. However, nicotine cartridges for the e-cigarette come in a wide range of flavors likely to appeal to kids -- think chocolate, caramel, strawberry and even bubble gum. And because e-cigarettes are sold online, it's easier for kids to purchase them than it is for them to buy regular tobacco cigarettes. For example, U.S. law requires consumers to provide proof that they are at least 18 years of age to buy tobacco cigarettes, but this law does not apply to e-cig sellers. And young people may be attracted to e-cigarettes as a result of the attention celebrities are bringing to them: Johnny Depp uses one in the film "The Tourist" and "Grey's Anatomy" star Katherine Heigl shared one with David Letterman during a guest appearance on his show, even explaining to the audience how it works [source: ecig.org and Hunter].
5: They're Expensive
Electronic cigarettes come in a range of prices, depending on the manufacturer, model and style. A typical starter kit, which contains the e-cigarette device, a battery and several cartridges, can cost anywhere from $60 to $150. A pack of five cartridges (each cartridge is equal to about a pack of cigarettes, depending on how much a person smokes) goes for about $10. Consumers also can purchase the liquid in bulk and refill the cartridges themselves, which reduces the cost.
4: Maintenance Required
Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered and reusable, but users must charge the battery regularly. Some users have complained about the need to replace batteries too frequently, though this may depend on the quality of the device and battery purchased. The liquid in the cartridges also needs to be resupplied regularly, either by inserting a new cartridge or refilling an empty one. Nicotine liquid is sold in bulk for consumers who prefer this greener (and cheaper) option.
3: Not FDA Regulated, Yet
The FDA is in the process of having e-cigarettes labeled as a drug-delivery device so they can be regulated [source: FDA]. Manufacturers, however, say the e-cigarette is simply recreational, and should not be subject to FDA regulation. Two e-cigarette companies, Smoking Everywhere and NJOY, sued the FDA in the district court of the District of Columbia for impounding their products, and won. The judge ruled that "there is no basis for the FDA to treat electronic cigarettes … as a drug-device combination when all they purport to do is offer consumers the same recreational effects as a regular cigarette" [source: U.S. District Court].
2: Public Places
Regulation of electronic cigarette use is still evolving, as the product is relatively new. Manufacturers often market e-cigarettes as cigarettes you can smoke anywhere, saying that they present no health risks because they don't emit secondhand smoke. However, health experts say there is no basis for a safety claim, as e-cigarettes have not been adequately tested. Regulations vary, but some countries, including Australia, Canada, Israel and Mexico, have banned electronic cigarettes [source: NPR]. Others consider electronic cigarettes legal, but are in the process of legislating where and how people can use them.
1: Secondhand Vapor
While e-cigarettes don't produce secondhand smoke, they do produce secondhand vapor. And even though manufacturers say that it's merely water vapor and therefore harmless, regulatory agencies and health experts contend that e-cigarette makers haven't conducted the research needed to prove this. Some individuals, particularly those with health conditions that make them sensitive, have reported that the vapor is irritating to their eyes, noses and throats, and that it affects their breathing and makes them nauseous. Opponents of e-cigarettes say people shouldn't be subjected to secondhand vapor until manufacturers have proven it to be safe for everyone, including children, the elderly and people with certain medical conditions.
Lots More Information
- 9 Tools to Help You Successfully Stop Smoking
- 10 Best Things About Quitting Smoking
- 25 Steps to a Healthier You
- Demick, Barbara. "A High-Tech Approach to Getting a Nicotine Fix." Los Angeles Times. April 25, 2009 (Sept. 3, 2010)http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/25/world/fg-china-cigarettes25
- E-cig.org. "Johnny Depp Vapes an Electronic Cigarette on 'The Tourist.'" Dec. 15, 2010. (Jan. 5, 2011)http://www.e-cig.org/2010/12/15/johnny-depp-vapes-an-electronic-cigarette-on-the-tourist/
- Elliott, Debbie. "The New Frontier in War on Smoking." NPR. Aug. 5, 2009 (Jan. 5, 2011)http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=111578997
- FDA. "FDA Acts Against 5 Electronic Cigarette Distributors," Sept. 9, 2010 (December 3, 2010) http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm225224.htm
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- Hurt, Richard D. "Electronic Cigarettes: A Safe Way to Light Up?" Mayo Clinic. Dec. 1, 2009. (Sept. 3, 2010)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/electronic-cigarettes/AN02025
- Kesmodel, David, and Yadron, Danny. "E-Cigarettes Spark New Smoking War." Wall Street Journal. Aug. 25, 2010. (Sept. 3, 2010)http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704557704575437710870116450.html
- McLean, Mike. "A New Potential Market Lights Up." Journal of Business. Feb. 11, 2010. (Sept. 3, 2010)http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa5289/is_20100211/ai_n50249105/?tag=content;col1
- Smoking Everywhere Inc. and Sottera Inc. d/b/a NJOY v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Jan. 14, 2010.https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2009cv0771-54
- Sorrel, Amy Lynn. "Judge: E-cigarettes not subject to FDA oversight as drug delivery device." American Medical Association. Feb. 15, 2010. (Sept. 3, 2010)http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2010/02/15/gvl10215.htm
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- Zezima, Kate. "Analysis Finds Toxic Substances in Electronic Cigarettes."
- New York Times. July 22, 2009. (Sept 3, 2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/23/health/policy/23fda.html?_r=2