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E-cigarettes in the news

July 23, 2009 - Betsy Bethel
Maybe I've been living under a rock, but I hadn't heard of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, until I read the Food and Drug Administration's warning about them, released yesterday.

First, what are e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are the newest technology in the smoking industry. They are battery-powered fake cigarettes into which a cartridge of liquid is placed. An atomizer inside the device heats up and changes the liquid to vapor that can be inhaled.

The vapor contains "propylene glycol (PG), vegetable glycerin (VG), water, artificial flavorings and, if desired, nicotine," according to the Web site of one e-cigarette company, Liberty Electronic Cigarettes. The vapor is similar to what is emitted by fog machines at dance clubs and haunted houses, it states.

The "starter kit" for e-cigarettes costs about $60, according to one Ohio Valley retailer that began selling the items about a month ago. That includes the cigarette holder, battery charger and cartridges.

The cartridges apparently come with or without nicotine. Flavors offered by Liberty include traditional tobacco cigarette flavors such as "Virginia blend," menthol and clove, as well as vanilla, cherry, strawberry, banana and chocolate. The retailer said that even though you can buy the cartridges without nicotine, they are not allowed to be sold to anyone under the age of 18.

The benefits? Liberty's Web site states e-cigarettes have no smell and leave no residue. Best of all, the site says, e-cigarettes are cost-efficient. "Governments just keep upping the taxes on tobacco products. Who knows when cigarettes will hit $10 a pack?" the site states. A smoker who uses a pack a day (20 cigarettes) will typically end up using 1-2 milliliters of liquid a day in an e-cigarette, Liberty states. "When you combine this with replacement costs for electronic cigarette components, the long-term cost averages out to about $1-2 a day."

The FDA released yesterday, however, results from a laboratory analysis of electronic cigarette samples that found they contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze.

"The FDA’s Division of Pharmaceutical Analysis analyzed the ingredients in a small sample of cartridges from two leading brands of electronic cigarettes. In one sample, the FDA’s analyses detected diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze that is toxic to humans, and in several other samples, the FDA analyses detected carcinogens, including nitrosamines. These products do not contain any health warnings comparable to FDA-approved nicotine replacement products or conventional cigarettes. Because these products have not been submitted to the FDA for evaluation or approval, at this time the agency has no way of knowing, except for the limited testing it has performed, the levels of nicotine or the amounts or kinds of other chemicals that the various brands of these products deliver to the user."

My concern when I first heard about this new nicotine-delivery model is the potential impact on kids.

Several public health entities have come out with statements on the e-cigarettes. Says the American Legacy Foundation: “Finally, and of critical importance, information is not yet available as to whether e-cigarettes might actually encourage children and teens and young adults to take their first step toward smoking cigarettes, drawn in by the products' novelty and variety of flavors, including strawberry, banana and chocolate.”

That point is well taken, considering the success of the alcohol industry in drawing in young people through sweet, colorful concoctions, such as wine coolers and alcopops.

I would be interested to know just how harmful e-cigarette vapor is (i.e., is it more dangerous than the crap that goes into regular cigarettes), and also what the secondhand "vapor" contains. If it turns out to be no worse than regular cigarettes, and non-smokers' exposure to e-cigarettes is also less harmful than tobacco cigarettes — plus it doesn't stink up the house, car, clothes, furniture, breath, etc. — then it might not be such a bad thing.


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