Electronic cigarettes have been gaining attention over the past few years, so we had one reporter/smoker take them for a test-drive.
By Alexander Colby
A typical scene in the average New York City restaurant: waiters taking orders, servers scurrying about with customers’ dishes, laughter and clinking glasses punctuating the steady drone of the evening crowd. Then a plume of smoke ascends from one of the tables, undulating silently, yet commanding the attention of the nearby diners. They wonder if someone has really had the audacity to light up a cigarette inside a venue where such activity is clearly verboten (there hasn’t been a legal smoking section in a New York City restaurant or bar since 2003). Another plume wafts gently above the culprit’s table, yet no waiter or manager seems to be concerned that a customer has broken the law. Indeed, no one has. The glowing blue LED at the end of the man’s cigarette proves he’s not smoking, but vaporizing, and his activity is perfectly legal—for now.
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, have been slowly gaining the atten tion of the public since their intro duction to the global marketplace in 2003, when an enterprising team of Chinese developers first patented their model for a battery driven liquid-nicotine cigarette. As with many such novel ideas, imitators and innovators quickly seized upon the concept and developed their own models, leading to an ever-increasing array of styles and designs. The end result of all of them is the same: a cigarette smoking–like experience without the smoke.
Whereas a regular tobacco cigarette uses flame to ignite and burn dried plant matter (and whatever additional chemicals the leaves are impregnated with, such as ammonia), the e-cig operates via an electric charge that heats up a small steel wick, which in turn vaporizes a solution that is generally referred to as e-fluid. This e-fluid usually (but not necessarily) contains nicotine, a flavoring of some sort, and nothing else. That, along with the freedom to “smoke” anywhere, is why e-cig use is rising dramatically with smokers.
Cigarette smokers have long been aware that there are more than 4,000 chemicals generally found in tobacco smoke, and more than 50 of them are known to cause cancer or be otherwise toxic for human consumption. Such undesirable ingredients include ammonia, arsenic, benzene, butane, carbon monoxide, DDT, lead, formaldehyde, and naphthalene. Of course, most of the chemicals inhaled in cigarette smoke stay in the lungs; the more you inhale, the more satisfying it seems, but the greater the damage to your body.
Then there’s the tar that collects in your lungs.
With the e-cig, there is no tar to gum up one’s lungs and restrict breath ing, and the nicotine contained within each draw is absorbed into the body within seconds, so there is no need to hold a hit. Nicotine itself, while poisonous and even lethal in high enough concentrations, is not a carcinogen, and the e-cig user can determine exactly how strong he wishes his fluid to be, either by purchasing pre-mixed fluids or making his own mixes at home.
The essentials of the various e-cigs on the market are fairly identical and involve three components:
Battery, usually rechargeable via a wall socket, USB connection, or a portable charging device.
Atomizer, which is triggered manually via an external button, or automa tically when the user takes a drag.
Cartridge/mouthpiece containing the e-liquid. These are either disposable or refillable. Sometimes the atomizer and cartridge are combined into one unit, generally referred to as a “cartomizer.”
Each of these components has a life span, and must eventually be replaced. Cartridges tend to be good for around six to ten refills before they get clogged and the vapor pulled from them becomes increasingly reduced; atomizers will last a good deal longer with proper care and cleaning; and the battery lives are dependent upon the model. Some batteries need recharging after about two hours’ use, some go for around six hours, and some last upward of 12 hours; generally, the larger the battery, the more times it can be recharged.
The e-fluid itself is usually a substance called propylene glycol (PG), an organic compound that is both colorless and odorless, though often it has a slight sweetness when vaporized. It has been rated as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA for use in food, cosmetics, and medicines. It is absorbed and metabolized by your body, so it does not stick to your lungs like tar. However, PG is not without its own controversy; it has not been approved for prolonged and regular internal use. While PG is used in smoke machines for dance clubs and theatrical productions, it is also used in such things as antifreeze and engine coolant. For that reason, many e-cig users have switched to e-fluid that uses a vegetable-based glycerin (VG) as the base solution, as it is viewed as a safer substance.
Start-up costs of e-smoking—“vaping,” as enthusiasts call it—vary from brand to brand. Depending on the peripherals and accessories that are chosen, the price to switch ranges from $60 to $120 and up. Sounds high, we know, but compared to the cost of cigarettes—which of course vary widely depending on locale—a smoker can save money over the long run. In New York City, for example, the average price of a pack of cigarettes is $11, so a pack-a-day smoker will be spending less after just two weeks.
Even better than that, since there’s nothing combusting or burning, pesky smoking restrictions don’t apply. However, there are motions in various states’ legislatures that, if passed into law, will affect the public use of e-cigs or even whether or not it’s legal to buy, sell, or distribute electronic cigarettes; concern over e-cigs has reached the federal government. The FDA has now officially identified e-cigarettes as a tobacco product. What happens next is dependent upon how the stuff is marketed. As the FDA disclosed in April 2011, “E-cigarettes and other products are not drugs/devices unless they are marketed for therapeutic purposes [i.e., smoking cessation],” but products “made or derived from tobacco” can be regulated as “tobacco products.”
This scrutiny by the FDA is both a blessing and a curse for e-cig enthusiasts. The upside is that the products are going to be regulated, which means that if materials made overseas fail to pass explicit standards, they will not be allowed to enter the country for sale or distribution. Similarly, such products made within this country must adhere to strict regulations, so they’ll be free of contaminants and measure up in terms of acceptable levels of ingredients. American electronic-cigarette manufacturers also may now legally export their wares overseas. The downside is that electronic cigarettes may fall victim to the same sin taxes imposed on snuff, cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco, despite the fact that e-cigs pose less risk to one’s health.
Nevertheless, the e-cig is clearly a way by which many smokers are breaking their addiction to tobacco, and I know this because I was one of them. I began using the e-cig after 25 years of cigarette smoking. Making the transition was nearly seamless; I simply ran out of cigarettes one night just before going to sleep, and in the morning, I began using my new e-cigs. Within a week, my smoker’s hack, an otherwise near-constant companion, disappeared entirely. My senses of smell and taste skyrocketed; my energy was at a level I haven’t known in years; and I slept better and fell asleep more quickly than I had in at least as long. Because I mixed my own e-fluid from pure vegetable-glycol diluent with a specific concentration of nicotine suspended in propylene glycol, I knew with some certainty how much nicotine I received in every lungful. I began at 11 milligrams—about the strength of a Marlboro cigarette—but soon was down to three to five milligrams, and shortly after I went completely nicotine-free. I don’t think there are any cigarettes that are that light—or, for that matter, taste of butterscotch, cola, or toffee, as mine did.
It is worth noting, however, that individual mileage with this method may vary wildly: I was cigarette-free for approximately five months, a dedicated nonsmoker saving around $300 per month, and healthier than I’d been in years. Then, after a per sonal tragedy, I sabotaged my efforts and began smoking again, and it was like falling back into the familiar arms of a toxic lover. Now my e-cig materials gather dust on a shelf, ready when I am to tackle my nicotine addiction.