Are E-Cigarettes Safe? Here’s What We Know

Everyone has their own opinion about e-cigarettes: ask ten people about their safety and you will get ten different answers. Fierce debate could flare up because data is scarce, but there are a few things that experts can agree on. Let’s take a look at the details.

Vaping is controversial because it is new, which means two things. First, science has not yet decided how safe it is. And second, and perhaps more importantly, political and commercial interests have not yet decided where they are. Does Big Tobacco consider vaping a competitor or a market opportunity? Is vaping a public health boon or just a tailor’s cigarette?

Since there are so many unresolved issues, we cannot give you a clear yes or no answer in one Lifehacker post. (Many life questions can be answered this way, but not this one.) Instead, we’ll look at the evidence behind a couple of key questions and tell you what the experts agree on and what is still up in the air. …

Do e-cigarettes contain harmful ingredients?

Let’s start with the obvious: Nicotine is found in most e-cigarettes. This is the whole point if you are using it to replace a tobacco cigarette or trying to quit smoking. While fancy flavors added “juice” has been widely discussed in the press, in the stores are almost always sold means of delivery of nicotine without the smell or taste of menthol.

Nicotine is addictive but not carcinogenic. This leads e-cigarette advocates to state that “the problem with traditional cigarettes is additives, smoke and chemicals, not nicotine, ” but this is not true. Nicotine has many problems. It can ruin the brains of teenagers , and this is still unsafe for pregnant women: nicotine interferes with the development of the fetus, including the lungs, and increases the likelihood of premature birth.

In contrast, carcinogens are found in the tar of cigarettes. There is no tar in e-cigarettes, so the main benefit of vaping is that you skip this cancer-causing cocktail.

However, there may be other harmful chemicals as well. Diacetyl , used in some flavors, can be eaten but not inhaled. Mice exposed to e-cigarette vapors suffered mild lung damage, but much less than from cigarette smoke. And in a highly publicized study, researchers found that e-cigarettes can produce more formaldehyde than tobacco cigarettes, but only if the heating element was set to an unusually high level. While vaping is obviously not as safe as breathing clean air, it is probably much better than smoking a real cigarette.

Is that enough to declare e-cigarettes virtually harmless? The World Health Organization is pessimistic but accurate in describing the unknown:

The potential health risks of [e-cigarettes] to users remain uncertain. In addition, scientific trials show that products vary greatly in the amount of nicotine and other chemicals they deliver, and consumers have no way of knowing what the product they bought is actually delivering.

In other words, the problem with additives comes up over and over again: no one checks what’s inside and how many, so you’re on your own.

There is another source of danger that is not in the vaporizer itself: the refill vials contain concentrated nicotine that can be inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin . Drinking fluids has resulted in at least one death of the baby . Childproof covers are not required at this time. If you use liquid, handle it carefully and keep it out of the reach of children and pets.

Can vaping help you quit smoking?

Since e-cigarettes contain fewer harmful ingredients than tobacco cigarettes, it seems obvious that switching to them will be beneficial for your health. But if this is true, it is difficult for scientists to prove it. The American Lung Association , for example, is “concerned about unsubstantiated claims” that e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking ; they say there is simply no science.

Take this study published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine . Of the tobacco smokers calling the smoking cessation helpline, those who used e-cigarettes were not more likely to quit in the end. The authors write that perhaps vaping actually helped people quit smoking, but so low that their study was unable to find it.

On the other hand, a study published in the journal Addiction found that smokers who used e-cigarettes to quit smoking were 60% more likely to succeed than those who used nicotine patches. Why the opposite result? Dont clear. These smokers tried to quit smoking on their own, without waiting in line, and there may be other important differences between the two studies.

The latest study adds another snag: Researchers report in the American Journal of Public Health that – regardless of who quit smoking, but just regular smokers – those who have used e-cigarettes are less likely to quit. In other words, vapers may not want to quit smoking.

Perhaps they believe they have reduced the amount of harm they do to themselves, and thus a few cigarettes plus the habit of smoking is better than the old-fashioned habit of smoking. But without more research into their motivations, we cannot say with certainty if this is the case.

Success in quitting smoking can also depend on factors such as the dose of nicotine you get from your e-cigarette and how often you use it. There is no agreed-upon recommendation for using vaping as a smoking cessation tool. This means that we do not know if it helps people quit smoking, and we can not tell you how you should use it if this is your goal.

Is big tobacco behind the rise of vaping?

Traditional cigarette companies are in an odd position: They would like to have a market share that keeps people interested in smoking, but they also want to protect their much larger market for real tobacco.

The result is a kind of war between the two types of producers . In one corner, we have independent companies selling reusable equipment in vape shops, often highlighting a range of affordable flavors like Baskin-Robbins. Other “cigar-like” products you can buy in stores are disposable, cigarette-like and cigarette-flavored. The largest manufacturer , Blu, is owned by a tobacco company (although brand # 2, NJOY, is not).

Big Tobacco appears to be hedging its bets in two ways: by selling cigaliks with warnings that make them look worse than cigarettes, and at the same time writing to the FDA that their “open system” competitors are dangerous and need stricter regulation.

Meanwhile, independent e-cigarette companies are emerging as their own marketing force . As the market develops, follow the science, not the hype.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.

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