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Electronic cigarettes pose as a replacement of cigarettes. It is claimed that they help in quitting smoking. They do come in flavors, and in various levels of nicotine. But, are they less harmful? Do they have any side effects?

For example, Health Canada issued an advisory against electronic cigarettes.

Health Canada is advising Canadians not to purchase or use electronic smoking products, as these products may pose health risks and have not been fully evaluated for safety, quality and efficacy by Health Canada

In recent months, a number of electronic cigarettes, cigars and pipes as well as cartridges of nicotine solutions and related products have been marketed in Canada, and through the Internet. Most of these products are shaped and look like their conventional counterparts. They produce a vapour that resembles smoke and a glow that resembles the tip of a cigarette. They consist of a battery-powered delivery system that vapourizes and delivers a liquid chemical mixture that may be composed of various amounts of nicotine, propylene glycol, and other chemicals.

Nicotine is a highly addictive and toxic substance, and the inhalation of propylene glycol is a known irritant. Although these electronic smoking products may be marketed as a safer alternative to conventional tobacco products and, in some cases, as an aid to quitting smoking, electronic smoking products may pose risks such as nicotine poisoning and addiction.

So the question is, is an electronic cigarette better than a normal cigarette? Is an electronic cigarette with non-nicotine cartridges not harmful whatsoever?

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Probably, as long as it doesn't Explode in your mouth. – Tester101 Mar 26 '12 at 18:30
The word better sends up big red flags that the question you are asking is bad subjective. It is directly asking for opinion and so answers to those questions tend to have lower quality answers. Try to define "Better" as something for you. IE less damaging to your lungs, less addictive, less alergenic, cheaper, etc. Please choose a single quality to focus on. Preferably one with a notable claim that says it is. – Chad Mar 26 '12 at 19:24
There are three separate questions here. (1) "Are electronic cigarettes (with nicotine) safe?" (2) "Are electronic cigarettes (without nicotine) safe?" and (3) "Are electronic cigarettes 'better' than normal ones?" Currently, you have only shown notability for the first claim. Please provide references for the other claims. Also, as Chad suggested, define what 'better' means. – Oddthinking Mar 29 '12 at 5:30
I've been using my clothes don't stink.I never cough, I'm not running out of breath when I take long walks.And I generally feel better.they are a true miracle not even caring about FDA approval.They approve alot of dangerous prescription medicines and maintain that people who smoke cannabis(I don't) should use marinol? So with that being said I trust my own judgement. – user12049 Mar 21 '13 at 23:29
@user12049: glad to hear you're having a good experience, but Skeptics is intended to collate evidence, not anecdote. – Paul D. Waite Sep 26 '13 at 9:58

2 Answers 2

up vote 13 down vote accepted

In 2009, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did a chemical analysis of several products from two leading brands of electronic cigarette.

What they found was disturbing. Here are some excerpted points:

  • DPA's analysis of the electronic cigarette samples showed that the product contained detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed.

  • Diethylene glycol was detected in one cartridge at approximately 1%. Diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze, is toxic to humans.

  • Certain tobacco-specific nitrosamines which are human carcinogens were detected in half of the samples tested.

  • Tobacco-specific impurities suspected of being harmful to humans—anabasine, myosmine, and β-nicotyrine—were detected in a majority of the samples tested.

  • The electronic cigarette cartridges that were labeled as containing no nicotine had low levels of nicotine present in all cartridges tested, except one.

  • One high-nicotine cartridge delivered twice as much nicotine to users when the vapor from that electronic cigarette brand was inhaled than was delivered by a sample of the nicotine inhalation product (used as a control) approved by FDA for use as a smoking cessation aid.

A more technical description of the process was also published.

These results suggest that the manufacturers claims (as of 2009) are not to be trusted, that electronic cigarettes contain a number of dangerous compounds and that they are unsuitable as a mechanism for quitting smoking.

Note: At least one manufacturer disputed these findings.

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The question asks for comparison to regular cigarettes, though... – Ilari Kajaste Mar 29 '12 at 5:06
Good point, @Ilari. I think that is a poor aspect of the question, and I will address it with the OP. – Oddthinking Mar 29 '12 at 5:26
I'm deeply suspicious of most of these "numbers". I would like to see comparisons not only to regular cigarettes, but also to drinking straws and other "perfectly safe" items that go through a normal manufacturing process. I'm particularly suspicious that someone is attempting to hoodwink me whenever I see "XYZ, and ingrediant used in ABC", as that's a trick of demagoguery and not science. – user73917 May 9 '12 at 19:02
@user73917: I agree with your comment about ingredients. I'd like to think that any FDA analysis would have a control/calibration on their instruments, but this short summary doesn't confirm that. – Oddthinking May 10 '12 at 2:34
That bad things were found is, probably, unsurprising. It is also irrelevant. The only fact that matters here is the relative amounts compared to those inhaled when smoking a normal cigarette. Does anyone claim electronic cigarettes are worse? Regulators and health departments are somewhat prone to make knee-jerk reactions to anything related to smoking without making sensible judgements about harm reduction. – matt_black May 10 '12 at 23:26

Depends on what you mean by "better", and what you mean by electronic cigarette.

The FDA report that Oddthinking links to addresses the question of whether e-cigarrettes are useful as an aid to kicking nicotine, and I think that the fair answer to that is probably not: e-cig marketing doesn't seem to focus on ceasing to inhale nicotine into your lungs, it focuses on ceasing to inhale smoke into your lungs. These are products marketed towards addicts, and the manufacturers have every reason to want their customers to remain addicts. 

But what the FDA report does not address at all is a comparison between the long term health effects of smoking vs. vaping, for the very simple reason that there isn't any data on that. So if by "better" you mean "has fewer long term health effects" the answer is "insufficient data."

If you mean better for your health in the short term than the answer seems to be yes, although the media claims that studies differ. In the article linked, we see references to two studies, one of which found that lung irritation occurs and remains for ten minutes after five minutes of e-cig use. That study did not compare air flow impedance from cigarettes with e-cigs, though, so from the point of view of "better" it contains no information at all. In a study that compared the effects of smoking conventional versus electrically heated tobacco (not e-cigs), smoking had more adverse effects on lung capacity. The study on e-cigs saw indications of lung irritation, but not decreased lung capacity. They also didn't analyze the ingredients of the e-cigs they studied or compare more than one type. They do mention that the e-cigs they used contained propylene glycol, a known lung irritant, which they mention may have been responsible for the lung irritation. So in terms of pulmonary function the indication is that short term, e-cigs are not harmless but are "better". The second study compared cardiac effects of cigs and e-cigs, and found that e-cigs are definitely "better" in regards to cardiac health.

Another key point is that not all e-cigs are equal. Some e-cigs are sold with sealed cartridges, others are refillable. A consumer using a refillable cartridge has more control over what goes in the e-cig, and can opt not to use propylene glycol, and substitute vegetable glycerin, ethyl alcohol, or even water. No studies have been done to compare the short term effects of various ingredients in an e-cig, though.

But the PG is what gives an e-cig "throat hit", that is, the subjective experience of vaping is different without PG than it is with it, so if "better" includes the visceral pleasure of feeling like you are smoking, this may be less satisfying and therefore not better.

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