E-Cigs under the microscope

James K. Ortiz, Guest Columnist

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Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are being marketed as the safe new alternative to conventional cigarettes. They now come in a variety of forms and include vape pods, Juuls, and vape pens. Although they were patented in the 1960s, electronic cigarettes were not widely known until recent years, appearing first in 2004 around China and spreading to other areas including Europe and the United States in 2006.

These electronic cigarettes usually consist of a cartridge, a battery, and an LED light. When turned on, the e-cigarette heats up the liquid that is contained in the cartridge. This then produces a mist or vapor, which the smoker inhales/vapes. The ingredients of the liquid vary, but typically include nicotine, and chemicals to vaporize the nicotine like propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin.

Since some e-cigarettes are tobacco-free, they are currently unregulated in the United States, but that may change. Already, major such as Boston, Chicago, New York, and most recently Los Angeles have restricted their use. Utah, New Jersey, and North Dakota have also banned their use wherever smoking is prohibited. Other states, like Minnesota and Oregon, are considering restrictions as well.

There’s some confusion in how e-cigs are being marketed. In some cases, they are being marketed as a nicotine replacement product that smokers can use to eventually quit smoking altogether. But don’t be fooled into thinking that e-cigs are without risks, or that you should now be able to vape without any serious consequences, or that they’re healthy. We must remember that nicotine is a powerfully addictive chemical.

FDA studies show that e-cigarettes contain some of the same toxic chemicals as regular cigarettes even though they don’t have tobacco. There is evidence that some of these toxic chemicals can cause DNA damage that can cause cancer.

A 2013 study suggests that even inhaling the drug via either conventional cigarettes or e-cigs may contribute to heart disease. There is evidence that e-cigarettes deliver toxic chemicals of their own such as formaldehyde (a known carcinogen), nitrosamines (linked to cancer) and lead (a neurotoxin). Though the toxicity levels of e-cigs may be lower than cigarettes, levels of formaldehyde and metals have been found to be at the same or even higher than those found in traditional cigarettes. Silicate particles, which are a cause of lung disease, have also been found in e-cigarette vapors.

Because they are smokeless, many people incorrectly assume that e-cigarettes are safer for non-smokers and the environment than traditional cigarettes. However, a study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health found that the use of e-cigarettes results in increased concentrations of “volatile organic compounds” and airborne particles, both of which are harmful when inhaled.

Although e-cigarette vapor may not result in the smell and visible smoke of traditional cigarettes, it still has a negative impact on air quality. There are no long-term studies to back up claims that the vapor from e-cigarettes is less harmful than conventional smoke. Cancer takes years to develop and e-cigarettes were only very recently introduced to the United States.

It takes an extremely long time to determine if a product increases a person’s risk of cancer until the product has been around for at least 15-20 years. Despite positive reviews from e-cigarette users who enjoy being able to smoke them where regular cigarettes are prohibited, very little is known about their safety and long-term health effects as they are still being studied and tested.

Overall, e-cigarettes, juuls, etc. have not been around long enough to determine the extent to which they may be harmful to users in the long run. Unfortunately, many people including teenagers believe that e-cigarettes are safe or that they are effective in helping people quit smoking regular cigarettes.  

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