E-cigs are battery-powered devices filled with liquid nicotine that is dissolved in water and propylene glycol. Many of them look like real cigarettes, with a white cylindrical tube, brown filter, and red or blue glowing tip. The main difference is that e-cigs do not contain tobacco.
The CDC reports about one in five Americans have smoked an e-cigarette. Young adults view e-cigs positively, and half say they'd try them if offered by a friend. E-cigs come in flavors such as chocolate, caramel, cherry, strawberry and even bubble gum—flavors also appealing to kids. And because e-cigarettes are not regulated, it is easier for kids to get them.
People use e-cigs as a “bridge product" to avoid smoke-free laws — and as a result, they delay or avoid quitting smoking. Others say replacing tobacco with electronic cigarettes may be beneficial to health or to help some people quit smoking. The reality is there is no clear answer if they help or hurt a current smoker. There is very little known about e-cigs and what the long-term effects could be.
One concern about e-cigs is there are no standards in making them. Nicotine levels vary. Some
e-cig brands have no nicotine, yet have been found to contain nicotine. An e-cig can contain as much nicotine (a highly addictive chemical) as a regular cigarette -- or more. The amount of nicotine an electronic cigarette delivers depends on the content of the liquid-nicotine unit installed in it. The impact of nicotine, even in a tobacco free product, is not harmless. Nicotine in the blood is linked to a decrease in blood flow, which can lead to amputation of limbs, impotence in men and heart disease. Nicotine also increases ‘bad’ cholesterol, causes asthma attacks, and has been connected to lung tumors. There are also strong suggestions of links between nicotine and low birth weights in newborns.
Another concern about e-cigs is that contamination can happen with propylene glycol, which is used in a variety of products including inhalers and as antifreeze. Studies have found that e-cigs give off “mists” that may contain volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) and nicotine. These pose a risk of "secondhand vaping" risk to “non-vapists”, like secondhand smoke from cigarettes to non-smokers. Some individuals, mostly those with illnesses that make them sensitive, have reported that the e-cig vapor is irritating to their eyes, noses and throats, and that it affects their breathing and makes them nauseous.
Regulatory agencies and some health experts are 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. In 2009, the FDA identified that some e-cigarettes also contain tobacco-specific nitrosamines, a known cancer-causing agent.
What's clear, though, is that plummeting prices are making e-cigarettes an increasingly popular and less expensive alternative to cigarettes. So, who really benefits from e-cigs – the public or the big corporations promoting them?