By Virginia Hughes | January 27, 2011 | 9 Comments
Yesterday I stumbled on a Mancouch blog post (don’t ask) in which ‘the_static’ — a young mohawk-ed guy who rides motorcycles and plays video games — sings the glories of electronic cigarettes. E-cigs, in case you haven’t heard of them, are cigarettes without the smoke. You put in a few drops of a liquid nicotine solution (‘e-juice’), and a battery-powered ‘atomizer’ heats it up. You suck in the vapors to get your fix.
Static says e-cigs are “ridiculously cheaper” than regular cigs. (It’s true in the long run: the e-cig device runs $50-100, but the liquid refills cost about $2.50 for the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes. Regular cigs cost $4.50/pack in Virginia, and $11/pack here in tax-crazed New York.)
Plus, static says, the vapor “doesn’t stink,” and you don’t have to worry about those pesky smoking bans in bars and restaurants. ”Of course, a few friends of mine teased me that I was smoking a ‘hippie cigarette’,” he writes. “But then it didn’t really matter when they had to step out of the club just to smoke while I continued socializing, enjoyed my drinks and kept my urges at bay with my new e-cig.”
Not everyone is so keen. In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration began intercepting shipments of e-cigs from China, arguing that they are not tobacco products, but medical devices, like the nicotine patch. Medical devices must go through a long and expensive FDA approval process before hitting the market.
E-cig manufacturers fought back, suing the agency, and it worked. In December, three D.C. judges ruled that e-cigs should be regulated as tobacco products, so long as their makers don’t make claims about how they help you quit smoking. On Monday, another appeals court backed up the decision.
Now it’s time for me to defend these hippie non-smokes.
First, I will acknowledge that we don’t know everything about the ingredients in e-cigarettes. But we know something. In December, Boston University researchers published a review of 16 studies analyzing the chemicals in e-cigs, and found that they are much safer than traditional cigarettes and related pharmaceutical products (such as the patch). The researchers also point out that there’s quite a bit we don’t know about regular cigarettes: they have somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 chemicals, of which scientists have only identified 5,300.
E-cigarettes, the authors write, “show tremendous promise in the fight against tobacco-related morbidity and mortality.” Still, nobody has rigorously tested their long-term effects. So yes, if a smoker tries an e-cig, she might be putting her health at risk.
…Which is, by the way, no different from what she does when she smokes a regular cigarette. As a non-smoker who grew up inhaling second-hand smoke, I think too little attention is going toward the potential public health benefits of e-cigs.
As argued in an April statement by the American Association of Public Health Physicians: “We can confidently state that the risk to others sharing an indoor environment with one or more [e-cigarette users] is almost sure to be much less than 1% the risk posed by environmental tobacco smoke.”
In sum: smokers seem to like e-cigs. They’re cheap and smell nice. The studies of e-cigarettes are not exhaustive, but the ones we have indicate that they’re not particularly harmful and, in all likelihood, not more harmful than regular cigarettes. They don’t produce smoke, a huge health benefit to the friends, family, co-workers and pets of the smoker.