Shining a light on electronic cigarettes

Photo from Flickr.

Electronic cigarettes are still relatively uncommon, but perhaps you’ve seen one here or there, glowing for a moment like a firefly before fading to black. They may just be the next big thing, if they can surmount the controversy they’ve brought along for the ride.

Photo from Flickr.

First, what they are: gadgets superficially resembling a cigarette, (or, if you’re fancy, a pipe), that are at their most basic, a cartridge, an atomizer and a power source. The cartridge contains a solution of vegetable glycerin –— used in the food industry as an additive, preserver, and sweetener –— and either nicotine or flavours such as chocolate, vanilla and mint, which the atomizer heats to a breathable mist. To simulate that cigarette glow, an LED on the other end lights up in a variety of colours, depending on the flavour or brand. While the battery is rechargeable, the cartridges are not, and each holds the equivalent of around 500 puffs, or around a pack to a pack and a half. When compared to regular cigarettes, in terms of cost, the base products are roughly equivalent.

A relatively new technology, they’ve been billed, up until recently, as less harmful alternatives to regular cigarettes; sellers say the cartridge solution contains only what you want and none of what you don’t, like the harmful chemicals,the smell or second-hand smoke.

Yet this should be taken with a grain of salt. Here in Canada, legislation bars nicotine e-cigarette advertisement to the point of being virtually restricted to word-of-mouth marketing and person-to-person purchasing. The reasoning behind this ban is an insufficient knowledge of the long-term impact of nicotine aerosol on health, as well as the possibility that such an alternative would encourage smoking and nicotine addiction, especially amongst youth. In truth, electronic cigarettes are a new technology where authorities are playing catch-up and scrambling to make sense of the whole thing. This lack of regulation has led to a product without safety standards or stringent rules that have both created a restricted climate for sellers. At the same time, it has given rise to a vacuum of established facts in the public consciousness, thus fashioning a haven for self-serving marketing that’s difficult to correctly assess.

So while it’s undeniable these electronic doppelgangers have a growing support base of dedicated puffers and ex-smokers, with testimonials to their efficacy as quitting aids and as classier alternatives to conventional puffing, there is ample evidence to the contrary.

Studies suggest that the heated vapours are damaging to the throat, and that dangerous chemicals are present in the seemingly benign solution. On top of that, ostensibly nicotine-free electronic cigarettes are sometimes anything but, not helped by the fact that most manufacturing comes by way of shady Chinese suppliers.

What’s not open to debate is that the industry is moving faster than any countering oversight. Already, down south and across the border, an accurate perspective of e-cigarette popularity can be gauged by the fact that it’s a billion-dollar industry. Once represented mostly by small intrepid entrepreneurs (a situation still extant in Montreal) big companies are stepping in as a lucrative market emerges. In this Wild West scenario, the onus is, as always, on the public to arm themselves with their own education.

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