Electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes as they are known, are hand held electronic devices that
vaporize a flavoured liquid which may or may not contain nicotine. Because of the liberation
of vaporized liquid, smoking e-cigarettes is commonly referred to as vaping.
The e-cigarette as we know it today was first sold in China in 2004 and since then the
devices have become popular worldwide, and have evolved and become more efficient at
delivering flavoured, vaporized, nicotine, without the health effects traditionally associated
with regular cigarettes.
Is that in fact accurate and true? Are e-cigarettes harmless? And besides that, should we
accept them, as advocates of the devices would have you accept them? That is, electronic
cigarettes are aides to quitting smoking.
The short answer to the first question is no. E-cigarettes are not harmless, but their
potential harm relative to regular cigarettes seems to be a lot less, thus they have gained
popularity as the safe alternative to smoking. The obvious problem with this comparison is
that when compared to cigarettes it is pretty easy for something to look relatively harmless.
Comparing e-cigarettes to regular cigarettes should not be the basis on which we make our
decision to use them or not. Given that we are humans are meant to breath air only,
shouldn’t that be what e-cigarettes are measured against?
There are numerous potential health risks that have been associated with e-cigarettes from
continued nicotine dependence with its associated problems, to cardiovascular risks,
respiratory problems and others.
These health risks stem from the knowledge that e-cigarettes contain nicotine which is
addictive and amongst other effects is harmful to the developing fetus, and affects
adolescent brain development. In addition, numerous studies have found detectable levels
of toxins and carcinogens in e-cigarette liquid as well as a substance called diacetyl which
has been implicated in a debilitating condition known as popcorn lung. 1
The flavours used in e-cigarettes may have potential health effects and are certainly the
draw card in getting youth and young adults to use e-cigarettes.
If you read anything that actively promotes vaping, you will likely read that there has been
no scientific study that definitively proves any adverse health effects. Are we really going to
go down the cigarette path of denialism again?
Perhaps at this point I should remind you that the “potential” harmful effects of regular
cigarettes were disputed for most of the 20th century because the data didn’t prove cause
and effect without a doubt. Of course tobacco companies played a huge role in this
denialism but are we crazy enough to repeat those same mistakes?
The good news is that we live in a world where scientific research has advanced incredibly
and we won’t have to wait 50 years to see the effects of e-cigarettes like we had to with
smoking before law and policy makers, with evidence from healthcare providers and
researchers, do something about it.
Thanks to genomics and other research methodology the answers will reveal themselves
soon enough but until the research gives us answers, do you really want to use e-cigarettes
in the meantime only to find yourself with a health problem that could have been avoided?
Perhaps if you are, or were a smoker, and e-cigarettes are your alternative then it’s an
acceptable alternative but e-cigarettes are more than just an innocent aid to help smokers
quit. One only needs to look at e-cigarette advertising and you will quickly notice the
similarities with cigarette advertising of the past. E-cigarettes are a financially profitable
product and their advertising is directed not just at smokers, but at ex-smokers and
worryingly, youth and young adults.
A 1947 Chesterfield advert
A 2013 E-cigarette advert
Looking at e-cigarettes holistically it seems clear that they are not just an aid to help
smokers quit, they are quite possibly the thing that will keep a generation addicted to
nicotine and smoking, and very likely create a whole new generation of nicotine addicted
This may sound a bit extreme but I realise now that I forgot to mention something. Most
tobacco companies are shareholders and have significant investments in e-cigarette
brands… go figure.
1 Neuberger, M., 2015. The electronic cigarette: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Wiener klinische
Wochenschrift, 127(9-10), pp.385-387.