Are e-cigarettes a safe alternative to smoking?
An electronic cigarette is a battery-operated device that emits doses of vaporized nicotine, or non-nicotine solutions, for the user to inhale. It aims to provide a similar sensation to inhaling tobacco smoke, without the smoke.
Also known as e-cigarettes, e-cigs, electronic nicotine delivery systems, vaporizer cigarettes, and vape pens, they are marketed as a way to stop or cut down on smoking.
E-cigarettes have been taken up by millions around the world since they first appeared on the Chinese market in 2004. In 2016, 3.2 percent of adults in the United States were using them.
“Vaping” is now the most popular form of tobacco use among teenagers in the U.S. E-cigarette use rose by 900 percent among high school students from 2011 to 2015.
In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started to enforce rules about the sales, marketing, and production of these products.
Fast facts on e-cigarettes
Here are some key points about e-cigarettes. More detail is in the main article.
E-cigarettes aim to resemble cigarettes, but without burning tobacco.
They are sold as aids to reduce or quit smoking, and some people find them helpful for this.
What are e-cigarettes?
An e-cigarette is a long tube that usually resembles a cigarette, a cigar, a pipe, or a pen. Most are reusable, with replaceable and refillable cartridges, but some are disposable.
The first patent for a “smokeless, non-tobacco cigarette” was requested by Herbert A. Gilbert in 1963, but the current device did not appear until 2003.
The e-cigarette as we know it was invented by Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist, working for Golden Dragon Holdings, now known as Ruyan. The company started exporting into major markets in 2005 to 2006. There are now over 460 different brands on the market.
How they work
Most e-cigarettes have:
a mouthpiece, or cartridge
a heating element
a rechargeable battery
As the user sucks on the mouthpiece, a sensor activates a heating element that vaporizes a flavored, liquid solution held in the mouthpiece. The person then “vapes,” or inhales, the aerosol solution.
The solution, also known as e-liquid or e-juice, is made by extracting nicotine from tobacco and mixing it with a base, usually propylene glycol, and flavoring. Propylene glycol is used in inhalers, for example, for asthma. There is a wide range of flavors to choose from, with names such as traditional, watermelon, menthol, and lava flow.
Some flavors, such as a combination of tobacco and menthol, try to resemble traditional cigarettes. A number of them claim to mimic specific brands.
E-cigarettes claim to bypass many of the health risks of tobacco smoking, and to offer a more healthful alternative to cigarettes and other conventional forms of nicotine intake.
Some studies have found that using e-cigarettes can help some smokers quit.
Others suggest they offer “modest” benefits for those who want to quit smoking, but “good potential” for those who are cutting down.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conclude that e-cigarettes can benefit adult smokers who are not pregnant, as long as they completely replace any other nicotine or tobacco products.
However, in 2015, 58.8 percent of adult users continued to smoke regular cigarettes. They did not use vaping as a complete substitute for tobacco.
The nicotine content varies from zero to “extra-high,” or 24 to 36 milligrams (mg) per milliliter (ml).
The mouthpiece is a cartridge that is fixed to the end of a tube. A small plastic cup within the mouthpiece holds an absorbent material drenched in the liquid solution.The cartridge can either be refilled or replaced with another pre-filled cartridge when necessary.
The atomizer is a heating element that heats the liquid, causing it to vaporize. The solution can then be breathed in, or inhaled.
The battery powers the heating element. This is normally a rechargeable, lithium-ion battery.
The sensor activates the heater when the user sucks on the device. An LED may show when it is activated.