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Are Electronic Cigarettes Safe? What is an E Cigarette?

Updated on September 6, 2013

Electronic Cigarette

A friend of mine recently asked me what I thought of electronic cigarettes as an aid to quitting smoking. I guess he asked me because of my background working in the pharmaceutical industry and also because I successfully gave up smoking a number of years ago.

I must admit I was intrigued. I'd noticed these electronic ciggies appearing on counters in petrol stations, on eBay and online for a while and on the surface they looked like a really good thing - so I switched into research mode and this is a summary about what I found. You'll notice that I won't make an argument for either side, either for or against vaping; just like smoking - it's your decision.

What is an E Cigarette?

Electronic cigarettes are small, portable devices that vaporise a prepared liquid which usually contains a mixture of propylene glycol or glycerin-based liquid solution, a flavouring and a shot of nicotine. E-Cigarettes come in several designs; most resemble the look of a standard cigarette, however some look like pens and there are even a few which look like a quellazaire (the cigarette holder popular in the 1960s and carried by the cartoon villain Cruella Deville). They are rechargeable or battery powered and reusable.

Is an Electronic Cigarette Going to Help Me Quit?

This is an interesting question, and one that only you know the answer to. As an ex-smoker myself I can tell you with certainty that when you really, really want to quit - that's when you're going to succeed. The method you use, be it patches, sheer will-power or eating everything in plain sight is likely to be irrelevant. So why is the question interesting?

The companies who sell e-cigarettes are keeping rather quiet about something that most of us have taken for granted. Electronic Cigarettes are not defined for use as "Nicotine Replacement Therapy" or as a "Smoking Cessation Product" - they are in fact defined as "Tobacco Products". This means that instead of finding them on the shelf at the pharmacy next to the nicotine patches, you're more likely to find them on the counter at a petrol station or even up on the shelf next to your regular cigarettes.

Are Electronic Cigarettes Safe?

Because e-cigarettes are defined as "Tobacco Products", rather than as a "Smoking Cessation Product", the amount of safety testing that they have to pass to arrive on our shelves are greatly reduced. In fact one Managing Director of a leading e-cigarette company was quoted as saying that human safety trials were too expensive to be viable. He did say that the product had been tested on mice and was deemed to be safe.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently tried to get Electronic Cigarettes reclassified as drug delivery devices, so that they would be subject to more rigorous regulation and control, however so far they have been unsuccessful. As long as the companies who market E-Cigarettes do not actually claim that their product helps you give up smoking, then they won't be required to test safety any more than your average cigarette manufacturer.

So the companies that sell these cigarettes are not claiming that they'll help you give up, but if you really want to stop then you'll succeed.

If you know someone who uses e-cigarettes it might be worth sharing this article with them to make sure they're aware that these products haven't been tested as thoroughly as real smoking cessation products like nicotine patches.

What Are The Big Healthcare Organisations and Cancer Charities Saying About Them?

There are mixed reactions, but no-one's really sticking their necks out because they all know that long term safety of these products is yet to be tested or proved.

The World Health Organisation remain on the fence stating that "no rigorous, peer-reviewed studies have been conducted showing that the electronic cigarette is a safe and effective nicotine replacement therapy. WHO does not discount the possibility that the electronic cigarette could be useful as a smoking cessation aid." They did however, later add that until the products were thoroughly tested up to the standards of regular Nicotine Replacement Therapies, they could not accept false suggestion that they would endorse the product.

Thomas J. Glynn, MA, MS, PhD, who is director of Cancer Science and Trends and director of International Cancer Control for the American Cancer Society said that he hoped, "the research and regulation processes will move forward quickly. After all, if the e-cigarette is shown to be unsafe and ineffective, we want to move on to other approaches that can lower the appalling toll from cigarette smoking. Or, if they are shown to be be both safe and effective, smokers can then add them to their menu of approaches to end their habit and extend their lives."

What Do The E-Cigarette Companies Claim Are The Benefits?

One of the leading companies claim the following on their website:

  • That e-cigarettes imitate a regular cigarette and are a new way to regulate and control nicotine intake whilst in public places
  • That they have had their products tested by an independent UK laboratory to ensure they do not contain any hazardous products apart from nicotine
  • Nicotine is addictive, and is classed as a poison
  • In the conclusion of the report the laboratory have said that on balance the nicotine cartridges appear to be a much safer alternative to the traditional cigarette, as they do not contain any of the known harmful chemicals that are in cigarettes.
  • Nicotine is not a proven carcinogenic, but it is addictive, and in the right quantity is a known poison. Nicotine is metabolised mainly in the liver, but also to a lesser degree in the lungs and brain. Nicotine is classed as addictive.
  • The electronic cigarette can be used in any location and within any premises that introduced a ban on tobacco based cigarettes with the introduction into Law of the Health Act 2006.

What are the Perceived Benefits of Vaping over Smoking?

Putting aside the above health concerns it seems that vaping enables a smoker to forget about ashtrays and lighters, going around smelling like a 1970s public house and the exposure to the many thousands of additional toxins, carcinogens and nasties that normally linger in a standard cigarette. In addition to this, second hand smoke is no longer an issue and, as the products aren't yet taxable, will probably be cheaper in the long run.

So to summarise Electronic Cigarettes are:

  • An alternative to smoking, not an aid to quitting
  • A way to avoid smelling like a smoker and creating second hand smoke whilst still getting your nicotine fix
  • Claimed to be less harmful than smoking because they are said to contain less toxins and carcinogens.
  • Not proven to be safe or tested on humans in short term, or long term trials.

Finally, if you are going to try vaping then make sure you choose the company you buy from carefully. As there seems to be regulatory black hole surrounding these products at this time, it's better to purchase from the more reputable and established companies who are less likely to cut corners in manufacturing and put your safety at risk.

I do hope this article helps in your decision, and do feel free to add your comments below - I love hearing opinions!

by Rachel Roodhardt


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    • profile image

      Rian 21 months ago

      Started using e-cig today all good so far I used to smoke 20 a day just the thought of no tar in my lungs surely has to be good

    • Rachel Roodhardt profile image

      Rachel Roodhardt 3 years ago from Folkestone, Kent

      Yes Ben, Not sure they're exactly safe, but safer than cigarettes, they do seem to be..

    • bodyathletics profile image

      Benjamin 3 years ago

      New York Times: "without also ingesting tar and other cancer-causing substances" describing the difference between regular and electronic cigarettes. Both aren't going to make you healthy but I'm glad there's a safer alternative.



    • profile image

      Claude Balls 4 years ago

      I've stopped smoking tobacco cigarettes and started using the e-cigarette(no nicotine type). I feel healthier, my lungs are clearer and i can breathe easier. And ironically i can smoke these anywhere i blardy like...ha ha. End of story

    • yeagerinvestments profile image

      yeagerinvestments 5 years ago from Wisconsin

      I know someone that just started using the e-cig and loves it. Hopefully it works for them.