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E-Cigarettes: Are They As Safe As You Think?

Updated on May 13, 2016
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C. E. Clark believes it is her duty and responsibility as a researcher and writer to bring important information to her readers.

E-Cigarettes Are Marketed Under the Guise That They Are Healthful and Safe to Use, but Is Nicotine Ever Safe?

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) are supposedly the more healthful, more socially acceptable answer, to smoking conventional tobacco cigarettes, yet they still contain highly addictive and toxic nicotine. Did you know that for a time nicotine was used in the U.S. as an insecticide and a fumigant? More recently, scientists have linked nicotine to an impaired immune system (Scientific American: Are E-Cigarettes Safe? May 2014 issue).

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), nicotine affects the heart and nervous system and can become fatal quickly in even small amounts. It can be ingested, inhaled, and absorbed through the skin. Nicotine is believed to cause delayed healing of wounds as well as reproductive disorders (Oxford Journals). Nicotine is basically a toxin.

This is the way e-cig smokers are using their product.
This is the way e-cig smokers are using their product. | Source

Propylene Glycol Is the Second Main Ingredient In E-Cigarettes but Is It Safe to Inhale? Heavy Metals May Also Be Emitted In the Vapor of E-Cigs. What About Q

Propylene glycol is another ingredient in e-cigs. It is frequently added to medicines, foods, and cosmetic products to absorb water while at the same time keeping them moist. Propylene glycol is an organic compound that is generally considered safe to eat in small amounts or for slathering onto your body along with soap or shampoo, but there is no proof that it is safe to inhale it.

There are many products that are safe to eat that would not be safe to inhale, and that would damage the lungs if inhaled. Propylene glycol is used not only in food, medicines, and cosmetics, but also in paint and plastics and it is used to create fake fog in theatrical productions as well as for other industrial purposes.

Only a couple of small studies have been done involving animals, not humans, in regard to the safety of propylene glycol as an inhalant. According to Scientific American magazine, “Are E-Cigarettes Safe?, May 2014 issue, the U.S. federal agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry states on its website that it has very little information regarding the inhalation of this compound. As a result, it could be foolhardy to assume propylene glycol is safe when inhaled.

The article previously referenced in the May 2014 issue of Scientific American further states that various studies have shown the vapors from e-cigarettes contain carcinogenic substances as well as tiny particles of tin, nickel, chromium, and other heavy metals which can damage the lungs. It is the heating of the chemicals that changes them — it is not uncommon for normally safe chemicals to turn into dangerous chemicals with a heating process — and the natural wearing of the components of the delivery device that creates problems, i.e., “nanoparticles” of heavy metals.

Such tiny nanoparticles have the ability to travel deep into the lungs. There is not yet sufficient data to determine if these tiny nanoparticles may exacerbate emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, or various kinds of inflammation in the lungs, air sacs in the lungs, or tubes that carry air to those air sacs.

Apparently quality control in the manufacture of e-cigarettes is particularly low, making it questionable as to exactly what is going into them, so says Stanton Glantz, Director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco.

Laws Regarding Who Can Legally Purchase or Use E-Cigarettes

Dina Fine Maron states in her article in the May 2014 issue of Scientific American (Are E-Cigarettes Safe?), that e-cigs are very popular with both teens and preteens. Data from the CDC shows that e-cigarette use among U.S. high school students more than doubled, from 4.7% in 2011 to 10% in 2012. While new laws in most states prohibit the sale or use or possession of e-cigs by persons under 18, it is still probable that the numbers stated above have increased to some extent.

Teenagers and preteens who have never even tried conventional tobacco cigarettes are getting on the bandwagon to use e-cigs because, for one thing, they imagine them to be safe. Of course peer pressure is usually the strongest incentive for young people in those age groups, but the belief that what they are doing is safe only encourages the use of e-cigs.

The primary ingredients in e-cigarettes are nicotine, propylene glycol, and flavoring. Among the common e-cig flavors available are piña colada, bubble gum, cookies and cream, strawberry, gummy bear, and chocolate, to name a few. These flavors are especially attractive to teenagers.

Currently 41 states have laws restricting the age of e-cigarette customers. I’m glad to see that several states have taken steps to restrict the sale of e-cigarettes to preteens and teenagers since I first wrote about this issue. Some states even make it illegal for underage persons to possess e-cigarettes. Some states that require a person to be at least 18 or 19 years old to purchase e-cigarettes include: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

The following states prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to ‘minors’ but do not state in the documents I viewed exactly how old a minor is in their state. Arizona, Idaho, New Hampshire. There were 9 states and the District of Columbia for which I could find no current information stating the minimal age one had to be to purchase e-cigarettes, so states not mentioned here may have laws regarding this issue, but I was unable to obtain the information as of this writing. The information here was provided by the Pubic Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was last updated on May 15, 2015.

As you might imagine, there is a lot of money involved in e-cigs and some of that money will make its way to our law makers, so do not be surprised if laws are slow to pass and soft even once they are passed.

The different looks of E-Cigs

A selection of the different styles of electronic cigarettes.
A selection of the different styles of electronic cigarettes. | Source

How E-Cigarettes Work

Electronic cigarettes have a small coil that vaporizes a nicotine-laced solution into an aerosol mist or vapor when heated. The user inhales that mist. The cigarette is battery operated and requires no lighter or matches.

The cartridges containing the highly addictive nicotine as well as the flavoring typically last about as long as it would take to smoke a pack of 20 tobacco filled cigarettes, so the cartridges must be replaced periodically.

The person who uses the e-cigarette may be puffing away blowing the smoke like a conventional cigarette smoker, so it may be hard to tell the difference between the e-cigs and classic tobacco loaded cigarettes when you see someone smoking. The e-cigarette often looks like a classic tobacco cigarette, too, and it even has a light emitting diode on the end that lights up when the user inhales, but there is no tobacco involved and no ashes.

However, there are also several models of e-cigs that do not look like the tobacco filled cigarettes most people are familiar with. Starter kits for e-cigarettes and pipes start at $20. Cartridges containing the flavoring and Nicotine average about $10 - $12 each.

An e-cigarette has three main parts:

  • A rechargeable lithium battery similar to those used in cell phones
  • A vaporization chamber contains electronic controls and an atomizer
  • A cartridge that contains the flavored liquid to be vaporized

Since most states are taking steps to regulate who may purchase e-cigarettes, the most important message here is that e-cigarettes are not carcinogenic free. Due to a lack of quality control, the different e-cigarette products vary in the amount of toxins they contain and the limits of their carcinogenic potential (Cleveland Clinic). If you don’t already smoke conventional cigarettes, don’t start with e-cigs.

The parts of an E-cigarette

An explanation of the different parts of an e-cigarette.
An explanation of the different parts of an e-cigarette. | Source


Scientific American, May 2014 issue, “Are E-Cigarettes Safe?” by Dina Fine Maron.

How E-Cigarettes Work

Nicotine toxic and previously used as an insecticide

Oxford Journals: Toxicological Sciences

Public Health Law Center

Health Essentials Cleveland Clinic


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