With smokers around the UK raving about the benefits of using electronic cigarettes, it’s easy to be swept up in the wave of popularity. But with leading health organisations wary of giving their blessing to this new form of cessation aid, the question has to be asked: are electronic cigarettes safe to use, or just a different type of health hazard?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is complex.
When e-cigarettes were invented in 2003 and introduced to global markets, they were designed as smoking cessation aids. Although nicotine patches and gum have been popular tools for years, many smokers found themselves missing the physical aspects of smoking – the feel of the cigarette in their hand, the inhalation and exhalation – that the gums and patches couldn’t replicate. Therefore, something that looked and acted like a cigarette, without producing the clouds of hazy smoke associated with the less appealing aspects of smoking, was always going to be a winner.
The premise is relatively straightforward: a bottle of liquid, commonly referred to as e-juice or e-liquid, is built into a cigarette-shaped atomising device. The atomiser heats the liquid, turning it into vapour. The user is then able to inhale this vapour in the same way as they would inhale tobacco smoke. However, as the e-cigarette is powered by battery, the atomiser can be turned off, enabling the user to ‘vape’ as much or as little as they like at any time.
The predominant selling point for e-cigs is their lack of tobacco. It’s the tobacco in standard cigarettes that causes so many problems for smokers, including lung cancer, heart disease and respiratory issues. Of course, the many thousands of chemicals that are added into normal cigarettes certainly don’t help, either.
E-cigarettes, though, don’t contain tobacco – so the risks of contracting smoking-related diseases and illnesses drop dramatically if you switch to an electronic format. There are also no added chemicals – the make-up of e-liquid is propylene glycol (found in toothpastes and beauty products), vegetable glycerine (made from natural oils), water, nicotine and flavourings. In fact, most of the added chemicals come from the addition of flavourings, and as such are classes as ‘food grade’ – meaning they’re safe to consume.
Electronic cigarettes don’t give you unsightly tobacco stains on your teeth and fingers; they don’t give you a smoky, musty smell or bad breath; they don’t reduce your fertility or your ability to reproduce. They can be used in many places where smoking is banned, such as restaurants and workplaces.
So why aren’t more health organisations backing them, you ask? Research is the answer. Since their inception over a decade ago, almost no studies have been done on the long-term effects of vaping. The few forays into research that have been completed have generally been done at the behest of e-cigarette manufacturers. Therefore, until more conclusive evidence is found to show that using electronic cigarettes is not harmful to your health, big organisations like the FDA, NHS and WHO are unwilling to support their use.
There are also concerns over the fact that e-cigarettes still contain nicotine, although this argument often does not hold up, as e-liquids nowadays are available with varying levels of nicotine – so you can start off with the maximum (usually around 24mg per 100ml) and gradually reduce your intake. There are even nicotine-free versions of most e-liquids, so that those people who have quit, yet still enjoy vaping, can do so without continuing the cycle of addiction.
As things currently stand, the leading argument for the use of e-cigarettes is that they are far less harmful than traditional cigarettes, if judged by the same standards and disease links. On this basis, many people are opting to try vaping, on the basis that a possible risk is preferable to a certain risk. Many vapers have also come forward to praise e-cigs for their role in helping thousands of people to quit smoking, some partially and some completely. Although not formally approved, many smoking charities are welcoming any measure that helps people to cut down on their tobacco and nicotine intake, and this potentially is where the future of e-cigarettes lies: in being a smoking cessation aid, nothing more, nothing less. But given their swift rise in popularity, it seems more likely that they will continue as a trend in their own right as well as helping smokers cut down. Either way, e-cigarettes are here to stay.