By Richard Barnes
E-cigarettes, e-smoking, vaping – whatever you call it, this technology-driven alternative to smoking tobacco is rapidly gaining popularity around the globe. In 2003, nobody knew what an e-cigarette was or had ever used or seen one. By 2025, e-cigarettes are projected to become a global industry worth US$50bn annually – and increasing all the time. The UK currently has almost three million vapers (users of electronic cigarettes), the US around nine million.
The sudden emergence and rapid growth of e-cigarettes has caught most consumers unawares, posing more questions than it answers. How does an e-cigarette work? Is it safer than smoking? How much does it cost? Will it be banned? Will it help smokers to quit tobacco or is it just a clever means to introduce a whole new generation of children to smoking? Where can I learn more?
This article will answer many questions and give you a sound understanding of the technology and issues around e-cigarettes. This will hopefully give you the information you need to make informed choices as a consumer.
What’s in a name?
Electronic cigarettes, and the habit/lifestyle of using them, have been given several names. Regulators and governments have chosen Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) as a blanket term, but e-cigarettes, e-cigs, e-smoking are all commonly applied.
The electronic cigarette industry strives to distance itself from the negative connotations of “cigarettes” and “smoking”. They also point out that ENDS do not produce smoke but rather vapour. So the industry has coined its own terms:
Vaping: the habit or lifestyle of using ENDS
Vaper: a user of ENDS
Vape gear: the products used by vapers for vaping.
The first electronic cigarette was designed by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik in 2003. As an ex-smoker who had struggled to quit using the smoking cessation aids of the time (nicotine patches and chewing gum), Hon Lik decided to design a product that not only delivered nicotine but also closely replicated the mechanical actions and routine of smoking cigarettes. He experimented with various methods for turning liquid nicotine into an inhalable vapour, discarding ultrasound and finally settling on heating via battery power.
How does it work?
Anybody who has studied an incandescent light bulb will know that it contains a thin metal coiled wire which glows with heat when electrical current is passed through the wire, producing light. An e-cigarette contains a similar thin coil of wire, which is heated by battery power rather than electricity.
This heated wire is placed in contact with a wick (usually organic cotton) which is saturated with a liquid formula of diluted nicotine. The heat vaporises the nicotine liquid in the same way that your kettle vaporises water into steam. This vapour is inhaled and exhaled by the vaper, delivering nicotine to their bloodstream in much the same way that a tobacco cigarette does.
The ends of the wick are placed into a small tank container of liquid nicotine so that, as the liquid in contact with the coil is vaporised, more liquid is drawn into the wick from the tank, ensuring a constant supply until the tank empties and must be refilled.
Most electronic cigarettes therefore contain:
- A metal coil which is heated
- A wick which draws liquid nicotine into contact with the coil
- A tank of liquid nicotine, called e-juice, to supply the wick and keep it moist
- A battery to provide the current to heat the coil, and
- A mouthpiece, called a drip tip, through which the vaper can inhale the vapour produced by the coil
What else does e-juice contain?
Pure undiluted liquid nicotine is extremely toxic and would be lethal if even just a small amount was swallowed. So it must be diluted greatly before use. Even the highest nicotine concentration e-juice will contain no more than around 2% nicotine. However, most vapers use e-juice that has around 0.3%-0.6% nicotine. So what makes up the remainder of the liquid?
There are typically three other constituents in e-juice:
- Propylene glycol (PG): this is a colourless, odourless, tasteless liquid that is used widely in foodstuffs and pharmaceutical products. It produces little visible vapour when superheated but carries flavours very effectively.
- Vegetable glycerin (VG): this is a colourless thick liquid with a slightly sweet taste. It doesn’t carry flavour well but produces dense clouds of vapour. If you have ever been to a night-club or a rock concert where a smoke machine was used, that was probably VG being superheated.
- Flavouring: e-juices come in literally thousands of different flavours and flavour combinations. Generic flavour categories include fruits, drinks, creams, desserts, bakery, sweets and others. Most flavourants were not designed specifically for vaping. Instead, e-juice manufacturers use flavourants formulated for the food and drink industries.
The above constituents have been tested extensively due to their use in other industries, and have been classified as Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) for human consumption. However, medical researchers are quick to point out that previous testing focused on the substances being ingested into the stomach, not inhaled into the lungs. There is broad consensus that more testing needs to be done in order to determine whether the GRAS classification also applies to inhaling these substances. Which leads us to…
Is vaping safe?
There are as many different views on this as there are medical health research bodies. To date, there appears to be broad consensus on two points:
- Vaping is not risk-free, there are associated health hazards, but
- Vaping is less harmful than smoking tobacco products.
Whether vaping is a lot less harmful than smoking, or merely a little less harmful, is open to debate. The Royal College of Physicians, the UK medical body that first alerted the world to the health risks of tobacco back in the 1960s, has stated “… the hazard to health arising from long-term vapour inhalation from the e-cigarettes available today is unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco.” In other words, vaping is 95% safer than smoking. Other health organisations have been more cagey, preferring not to compare the health risks between the two but rather stating that both entail health risks.
The problem is that vaping has only been practised for just over a decade, and practised widely for even less than that. So there are no longer term sample groups as a reference point. Medical researchers everywhere are agreed that more tests are needed before definitive conclusions can be reached.
But if vaping and smoking both deliver nicotine, they’re surely equally harmful?
While nicotine creates the dependency in the user, it is not widely regarded as a carcinogen nor even particulary unhealthy. Quite the contrary, some researchers have argued that nicotine provides some benefits, such as delaying the onset of Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s Disease. Overall, nicotine is reckoned to be much the same as caffeine in terms of health effects.
Tobacco smoke is an extremely complex mixture of literally thousands of different chemicals, many of which are harmful to health to varying degrees and in different ways. However, it is not unique to tobacco. Research has revealed that many different types of organic matter, if dried and crushed and smoked like tobacco, would produce similarly unhealthy consequences. Inhaling the smoke from your braai or from a bush fire would produce many of the same unhealthy effects. It is a consequence of the combustion of organic matter and inhaling the smoke, not of tobacco in particular.
Where vaping differs is that no organic material is burned and no smoke is produced. Instead, liquid is boiled and vapour is produced. Although both processes deliver nicotine to the user, they do so by fundamentally different means.
Is vaping a gateway to quitting smoking or a gateway to starting smoking?
Numerous research studies have sought to answer this question and there is no consensus yet. Some studies have indicated that vaping has attracted a significant number of users who had never smoked, other studies have found that the vast majority of vapers are smokers who want to quit tobacco. Again, researchers believe that more studies need to be done in order to find definitive answers.
Is vaping cheaper than smoking?
Putting aside the question of potential medical costs and focusing only on the direct cost of the habit, the answer is a definite “maybe”. In order to assess this, it is important to differentiate between the cost components of each habit.
Smoking is a “disposable” habit which requires little capital outlay. The cost of a packet of cigarettes and a lighter or box of matches is the only expenditure required. Thereafter costs are determined by how quickly the user finishes the pack and buys another.
Vaping, by contrast, requires buying vaping hardware in order to get started. This can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred Rands to several thousand Rands for a “starter kit”. However, once the hardware has been procured, the consumables (e-juice, coils, wicks) can be considerably cheaper than cigarettes. In addition, vaping has a DIY component in which many users make their own coils and mix their own e-juice. This can reduce costs substantially. However, vaping then becomes more of a hobby than a habit. The only answer to “How much does a hobby cost?” is “How much are you willing to spend?”
In summary, vaping can provide nicotine at up to 50% cheaper than smoking, or it can be several orders of magnitude more expensive. That is an individual decision.
Will vaping be banned?
There are some countries which have banned vaping, notably Brazil and Argentina. However, the global trend is to regulate and control a product rather than outlawing it. Prohibition of alcohol was a rank failure in the US, and many are conceding that the drug problem has not been solved by banning drugs. It is now recognised that more US teenagers are taking illegal drugs than smoking legal cigarettes. Ironically, the greatest success in curbing an undesirable product has been achieved in the campaign against smoking – yet cigarettes haven’t been outlawed. Banning a product simply drives it underground, taking control out of the hands of regulators.
As with most new industries, the vaping industry has been largely unregulated until now. While much of the design and innovation has come from America, almost all vaping products are produced in China, especially around the city of Shenzhen. The European Union recently implemented its first vaping regulations to control these imported products, and the US is set to follow suit shortly.
As vaping products are generally classified along with tobacco products, many regulations will apply to both: the banning of vaping in public places, health warnings on packaging, restriction of sales to minors, and so on.
In addition, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has launched the process to develop the first international standards for vaping gear. This standardisation and regulatory oversight aims to guide the vaping industry to produce better, higher quality and safer products for consumers.
The UK has taken a generally proactive stance towards vaping. The Royal College of Physicians and Public Health England are urging that vaping gear should be provided to smokers by the National Health Service (NHS) in order to help smokers quit. Their view is that vaping provides a technological opportunity to divert smokers from tobacco. Other countries are less positive, taking the stance that vaping will exacerbate the smoking problem rather than alleviating it.
Which of these two views will eventually win out? Only time will tell.