You may have seen some small, odd-looking devices in use lately, the kind that appear like typical manufactured cigarettes at first glance, but upon examination are the wrong colour, the wrong smell, and perhaps a little too shiny. Welcome to the latest nicotine delivery device – the trendily-named e-cigarette, not something you use on the internet but with the sleekness and branding to speak to the technological age nonetheless.
What is an e-cigarette?
So when is a cigarette not a cigarette? To understand how the newest player is affecting the tobacco market’s 1 billion smokers, it’s helpful to know what it is and how it works.
First, we’re talking about a vapour device rather than a smoking product. (It was originally called the electronic cigarette, but this term is seldom used for much the same reasons we don’t check our electronic mail.) Liquid containing nicotine is heated by an atomiser, creating a mist that can be inhaled, simulating cigarette smoking.
Second, the device is battery operated, removing the element of fire from the equation altogether. With this, we also remove the need for combustion chemicals, a clear benefit when weighing them against their traditional counterparts. Some e-cigarettes have a little LED light that glows at the tip.
Thirdly, and most interestingly, there is no tobacco. So while users may appear as though they’re undertaking an activity equivalent to smoking, they’re actually using quite a different product. It’s also a gigantic unknown.
Are they safe?
The Therapeutic Good Administration in Australia, the body tasked with evaluating the safety and efficacy of products that claim medicinal or therapeutic effects, is clear about its concern on this subject. Not because the data supports such a position, but precisely because there is no long-term data: “The impact of wide scale use of these devices on tobacco use is not known, and the outcome in the community could be harmful.” It’s the logical position. We have a product that was developed in China, released into the global marketplace in 2006, and whose impact cannot be known for some time.
There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic, however, particularly when you consider that a whopping 6 million people around the globe die of tobacco-related illness each year. 10% of these deaths are attributed to second-hand smoke – a figure that would immediately be affected by a widespread transition to e-cigarettes. From our place in the world, it’s easy to think that the tobacco industry is dying along with its customers, but in fact the opposite is true. The e-cigarette, despite being unaffordable in the markets that need them the most, is proving a desirable item closer to home. Anecdotal evidence, while far from definitive, is at least pointing to the idea that e-cigarettes are helping smokers to reduce their reliance on tobacco, or even quitting altogether. So far, so good.
Why it’s too early for optimism
On the flip side, “vaping”, or inhaling e-cigarette vapours, may be seen as a benign product whose technological novelty holds appeal to children who may not otherwise be inclined to use smoking products. This is a huge concern for public health advisers; just as marijuana is seen as a gateway drug to harder substances, the jury is out on whether vaping could be a gateway to nicotine addiction. And even if it’s not, the potential for harm lies in the carcinogens that have already been detected in the device’s vapour.
Playing the waiting game
It’s easy to see the appeal that the clean lines and coloured lights could hold to young kids. They are not exactly a packet of sugary Fags from the lolly counter, but they’re enticing and elusive in an entirely different way. In Australia, nicotine-based e-cigarettes are illegal (yet attainable), but flavoured vapourisers are widely available, and often in flavours that children find attractive.
If we take a harm-minimisation view, we might say that anything that helps a smoker to smoke less or not at all is a net benefit. But if we can reasonably foresee harm to children, we’re still figuratively playing with fire. Until anecdote and speculation becomes hard, scientific data from long-term studies, we won’t truly know what we’re dealing with. And we’re talking possibly decades rather than years. In the meantime, taking steps to quit smoking is the single biggest step you can take towards disease prevention.
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