Electronic Cigarettes: the Pros and Cons

Fawn Bekam
J.D. Candidate 2015, UCI Law

Stephanie Talavera
J.D. Candidate 2015, UCI Law

There seems to be a lot of confusion over electronic cigarettes: what they are, how they work, and what health risks they pose. Electronic cigarettes (“e-cigs” or “vapes”) simulate everything about smoking a real cigarette except the sickening smell. There are usually three parts: a rechargeable battery, a tank, and an atomizer. The battery heats liquid held in the tank, which goes through the atomizer to create water vapor. The vapor is usually odorless, and after a few seconds, the vapor disappears and no smell is left lingering.

Users can pick what type of liquid to use, and they vary in nicotine levels, flavors, and ingredients. The most popular liquids contain nicotine, artificial flavoring, and PV/VG. This last part is what scares people—what is PV/VG? PV is propylene glycol, an additive that the FDA has approved for use in the foods you eat. It’s also found in fog machines. VG is vegetable glycerin. It’s a carbohydrate found in plant oils that’s most often used as a sweetener, but can also be found in many make up products. These are the most popular ingredients, but other liquids may contain other chemicals, and you should do some independent research if you’re considering an e-liquid brand. There are some brands that use a chemical found in antifreeze, which common sense dictates you should probably stay away from inhaling.

E-cigs are a smoking alternative. They are highly addictive because they contain nicotine. It’s essentially a cigarette without tobacco, tar, or the 11,000 contaminants. But because these products are so new, research hasn’t caught up yet; it’s unclear what the health hazards are. Some studies have found that e-cigs do contain trace elements of hazardous compounds. They definitely aren’t “healthy”, and they aren’t recommended if you’re not currently a tobacco user.

So if you’re currently a smoker, isn’t it de facto safer to switch to e-cigs that don’t have all of these harmful ingredients? Even if there is some health risk, it’s significantly less than using tobacco, so doesn’t that mean you should go out and buy one right now? Speaking of buying one, how much are they anyways? A starter kit can run you about $50, you need to replace the $2 atomizer about once a week, and a $12 bottle of liquid will last about a week.  Depending on how much you’re spending on cigarettes, switching can be cheaper. When thinking about making the switch though, there’s a lot more to consider than just the price.

With most smoking cessation products on the market you only get the nicotine—all of your other habits need to break much more abruptly. An electronic cigarette is basically everything a cigarette is in terms of habit (holding something, putting it in your mouth, inhaling it, and exhaling “smoke”). It’s easy to switch over because you’re not really stopping anything. Just as with traditional cessation products, you can work your way down nicotine levels to eventually wean yourself off. But what happens when you’re at level zero nicotine and you still have the other habits that come with being a smoker? This casts doubt on the ability to use e-cigs to quit smoking.

A huge problem with e-cigs is that they are appealing to non-smokers and to kids. If you’ve ever stepped foot into an e-cig store, it’s like a candy store. You can go in and try different flavors from traditional tobacco to cotton candy, watermelon, strawberry, chocolate, and caramel. They have hundreds of flavors including gummy bear and Hawaiian punch. This is awesome if you’re trying to kick the tobacco habit, but it’s hazardous for the undeniable way that kids will be attracted to it.

And another thing—these devices aren’t FDA regulated. The FDA has regulatory authority over cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, and roll-your-own tobacco. This authority doesn’t extend over e-cigs, pipe tobacco, or cigars. E-cigs don’t have advertisement restrictions the way cigarettes do, so their appeal to kids and non-smokers is quite dangerous. Considering that cigarettes are FDA regulated but still manage to kill millions of people a year, it’s hard to say whether FDA regulation would really matter in terms of safety anyways. However, state and local governments can and do regulate e-cigs. In California, e-cigs must include Prop 65 warnings (e.g. this product contains chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm), can’t claim to be cessation devices or that they are healthy, and they can’t be sold to those under 18. On the other hand, in some states, minors can purchase e-cigs and liquids.

The moral of the story is that if you’re a smoker, you know you should quit. If you know it and just can’t bring yourself to do it, you could do some research and find out if e-cigs are good alternative for you. There are risks and benefits to using e-cigs. If you’re not a smoker and don’t like smokers, rejoice in the fact that come January 2014, no one will be blowing any kind of smoke on campus anyways.