Tobacco consumption remains a prime cause of preventable deaths worldwide. In the US alone, 480,000 deaths occur every year from smoking-related complications such as stroke, cancer, and pulmonary disease. In fact, if current levels of smoking are permitted to continue amongst the general population, a cumulative 1 billion deaths are expected by the end of the 21st century. Yet despite this alarming stat and countless warnings, smokers continue with their habit due to the addictive nature of nicotine found in cigarette smoke.
When inhaled, nicotine quickly enters the bloodstream via the lungs and reaches the brain, where it changes its structure and function to produce a feeling of relaxation and improved concentration. While nicotine is addictive and leads to illness, it’s not the reason for the high mortality rate associated with smoking. Smoking-related deaths occur due to illnesses which arise from the inhaling toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and tar which are released alongside with nicotine in the burning of tobacco.
To tackle this imminent health catastrophe, smokers are advised by health professionals to discontinue smoking by quitting “cold turkey” or enroll in nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). While both treatments seem ideal, as they require an individual to cease smoking, both have a high relapse rate as these treatments cannot replicate the nicotine-dependent pathway their brain has become accustomed to. As a result, these treatment methods should be accompanied with strict counseling and therapy sessions to break the brain’s dependency. However, the last decade has brought about a third alternative solution known as electronic cigarettes(e-cig). E-cig users are 60% more likely to quit traditional smoking than those who enroll in NRT or attempt to use their willpower.
What are E-cigs
E-cigs are battery operated devices which convert an e-liquid into an aerosol-based nicotine vapor which is subsequently inhaled. This is why vaping is a popular term associated with e-cig smoking. For this reason, these devices are manufactured to resemble traditional tobacco-based cigarettes and provide its users with the same feel and sensation but without the fire, ash, or smoky smell associated with smoking.
An e-cigs has three parts to its core structure. They are the rechargeable lithium battery, a vaporization chamber, and a cartridge. The lithium battery is the power source behind the cigarette and requires charging similar to cell phones. Connected to the battery is the vaporization chamber which is a hollow tube that contains an atomizer responsible for creating the vapor. Last but not least, before ‘lighting’ an e-cig, the user must attach a cartridge to the vaporization chamber which holds the nicotine-based e-liquid that will be heated
E-cigs were first patented in the 1930s (although no design was constructed until the 1960s) but their mainstream appeal only started to gain momentum since the turn of the century. By 2010, the FDA was interested in regulation of e-cigs but faced challenges in court over their right to do so as classification over their status as tobacco products or medical devices was debated. However, as of August 2016 the FDA has won a ruling in their favor which let them extend their authority to cover all tobacco products which includes e-cigs. As a result, e-cigs are allowed to be sold to the public in the US under the strict regulation and oversight of the FDA, which sets the law for who can purchase e-cigs and the production standards to be followed by manufacturers. Outside the US, regulation of e-cigs varies from country to country with some choosing to ban them entirely while others regulate their sale as a legal product.
Safety & Effectiveness Concerns
Ever since the introduction of e-cigs as a healthy smoking alternative, there have been countless studies and debates which attempt to either dispel or prove effectiveness of e-cigs as a solution for smoking cessation. With relapse rates pushing 90%, it’s clear that kicking the habit simply by quitting or using NRT is proving to be ineffective. In a study conducted by University College London which pitted quitting cold, NRT, and e-cigs against each other amongst 6000 smokers found e-cigs to be the most effective method to get people to quit. This is further backed by other studies which state that e-cigs could reduce smoking related deaths by 21%. Though these results are promising, there has yet to be a conclusive study on the effects of long-term use of e-cigs.
On top of concerns around effectiveness, there are still many unaddressed safety concerns regarding their use. Quality control remains a key issue with e-cigs as health experts feel that manufactures may not disclose or actively attempt to hide certain chemical ingredients found in their products. Even though there is regulatory oversight over their sale in some countries, when a FDA study carried out in 2009 compared two sample nicotine cartridges from different manufacturers, it found that the dose of nicotine delivered to users did not match the amount stated on the label. Other surprises included nicotine-free actually containing traces of nicotine and other toxins such as antifreeze. This is a serious concern when it comes to distribution in countries without the resources to ensure safety of e-cigs.
Future of E-cigs
Despite the uncertainty around e-cigs, their future is bright as they are becoming socially acceptable and popular to consume amongst the general population. By the end of 2017, the e-cig industry is expected to reach $10 billion and continue its fast-paced growth trajectory to overtake the industry for tobacco-based cigarettes by 2025. As more and more individuals begin to learn about this alternative to smoking, vapor-based cigarettes will move from being a niche product to a widely mainstream product that can be bought at any small convenience store. The change will be slow but it’s not far-fetched to expect to see e-cigs become the new ‘form’ of smoking amongst the next generation. Though safety and health concerns will remain, their use promises to be one step in the right direction for reducing the large number of smoking associated deaths.
With ongoing upgrades to e-cig technology and government regulation monitoring their safety and effectiveness, e-cigs are on course to become the ‘healthier’ version of with less deadly results.