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E-cigarettes and vaping: A debate beyond nicotine addiction

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E-cigarettes, vaping, patches and gum are all potential options for nicotine addicts who wish to cut down or quit smoking traditional cigarettes.

However, the press and studies concerning e-cigarettes and vaping equipment are varied and confusing. 

E-cigarettes are not a new phenomenon; they are simply new to mainstream culture. They come in many forms: some look like normal cigarettes, some are disposable or use filters, and other more elaborate products that are used for "vaping" -- the practice of heating liquid in an EVOD tank, inhaling, and producing vapor.   

E-cigarettes are devices that look similar to traditional cigarettes, complete with a battery charger, LED light and filters which light up whenever the user draws in smoke, created through heating an element within. These products vary wildly and can often be weak in 'hit'. Personal nicotine delivery systems, for "vaping," use e-liquid inserted by the user, and are more hefty, technical pieces of equipment, capable of producing hits of nicotine which are low or high, depending on the user's desire. The ingredients in e-liquid vials vary, and generally include nicotine, but do not have to. Chemicals which help to vaporize the nicotine when the liquid is heated include vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol.

The problem we often encounter when viewing media articles, studies and 'facts" about electric "smoking" or "vaping" is that different e-cigarettes and personal nicotine delivery systems are often grouped together -- when products on the market offer varying nicotine strengths, effectiveness, and practices of use. Studies are often limited and short on health benefits. It is worth having a user's perspective within the debate, something I shall explore within this article. 

Many studies claim smoking "e-cigarettes" does not reduce the rate of smoking. One recent survey, conducted by tobacco researcher Pamela Ling from the University of California, San Francisco, followed 949 people and their smoking habits. Out of respondents of an online survey, 88 had used e-cigarettes, but were no more likely to have quit or reduced their smoking after a year than standard smokers. 

However, this study, like many others, is small and limited in range, and it is difficult to draw reliable conclusions from such evidence. Peter Hajek, director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, reviewed the results and said the report only shows that heavy smokers will try e-cigarettes, but the conclusions the paper draws are "just not related in any way to the study finding."

It may be that some smokers who try electronic alternatives do not find themselves cutting down on traditional cigarettes, or that they abandon e-cigarette types in the same way they do nicotine patches or gum.

Drawing on my personal use, I have tried several methods to quit smoking over the years. Patches, nicotine inhalers purchased from the drug store, e-cigarettes that replicate the look and feel of normal cigarettes, and vaping equipment. Filter-based, cigarette-imposers in my experience are generally weak, charge poorly and are a sad substitute for smoking, whereas vaping equipment is widely varied through different flavors, lasts a lot longer, and is generally more pleasant to "smoke" -- providing a good hit of nicotine in the process. 

At my worst, I smoked 60 cigarettes a day -- although thankfully that was only for a short time. Several months ago, I would smoke 20, or 30 on a bad day or due to drinking at the weekend. After using vaping equipment for a little less than two months, I now smoke no more than one or two standard cigarettes a day, or a few more if I am out drinking -- and that is because I generally leave my EVOD vaping system at home. 

Not only do my lungs thank me for it, but so does my bank account -- and those of my partner and some friends who have also adopted the EVOD after my trial. 

I haven't quit entirely, but my smoking has drastically reduced, as the EVOD kills my craving for nicotine and I still have the oral fixative of bringing the device to my mouth and enjoying a "smoke."

My personal experience does not represents everyone -- but every time we glance at a study or article which claims that e-cigarettes, vaping equipment or other methods do not lessen dependence on traditional cigarettes, we need to be aware there are different versions of such equipment on the market, and varying levels of reliance on nicotine can impact users and their chances of quitting traditional smoking. 

But what are some of the potential problems with e-cigarettes or vaping equipment? Some critics argue that vaping or e-cigarettes could encourage the young to begin smoking, as a gateway to nicotine, which would eventually lead to smoking traditional cigarettes. Although it's too soon to back up claims with studies, I would argue that vaping is not a gateway to less "healthy" ways to smoke, but rather an alternative for current smokers who are looking for a "healthier" option (if it is so), do not like smelling like an ashtray, or cannot afford the rising price of tobacco across the West. 

Once researchers find a single case study of a teenager that has gone from using an electronic variety to the far more expensive traditional type, I'll consider such criticism as having merit.

Another argument against the use of vaping equipment is that the liquid used is poisonous if handled or ingested. A recent New York Times article details how e-liquid is not regulated by government bodies, and is dangerous in its concentrated form -- a teaspoon swallowed can cause serious damage to children and adults. 
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Often sold in 10ml bottles as pictured, e-liquids come in a variety of flavors and different nicotine strengths. Once bottle caps are twisted and the bottle is opened, stoppers or small slits are generally used for the liquid to be dripped into an EVOD chamber. The publication says that some brightly coloured liquid bottles and the flavors -- which range from strawberry to cigars and ice cream -- could entice children to ingest them. 

Lee Cantrell, director of the San Diego division of the California Poison Control System says that "it’s not a matter of if a child will be seriously poisoned or killed, it’s a matter of when."

As the e-liquid nicotine can be absorbed quickly through accidental skin contact than through inhalation, the liquid can be harmful to children and adults. According to information from the National Poison Data System, there were 1,351 cases of poisoning linked to e-liquids in 2013, 365 of which were referred to hospitals. However, many of these incidents can be attributed to carelessness or a lack of understanding by people handling the liquid. Within the article, not one case of poisoning due to a toxic mix beyond the inclusion of nicotine was mentioned -- it is simply the handling of it which can cause accidents. In the case of children, in the same way you do not leave medicines, bleach or jewelry cleaner lying around, parents who use e-liquid need to take measures to keep toxins out of small hands. 

There is a risk with any type of smoking, but if we compare this number to the "leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 480,000 deaths occur every year due to smoking.

It is sometimes believed by users that the product created by personal nicotine delivery systems is nothing more than water vapor. This is not the case, and some studies claim that e-cigarette vapor can include traces of chemicals and metals -- as well as nicotine levels higher than e-liquid producers state. However, a separate study found that while e-cigarette vapor contained some toxic substances, the levels of toxins were 9-450 times lower than cigarette smoke. 

Given the long list of harmful, toxic components in cigarettes, it is not unreasonable to consider vaping less dangerous than traditional smoking. It is not healthy, but it can be considered safer -- and secondary smoke is likely to be less damaging to those around you. 

On the subject of secondary smoking, regulation and a ban on e-cigarette smoking in areas where traditional smoking is already prohibited are being considered by both the U.K. and United States

Regulation, although the idea isn't necessarily popular, may be key.  Chip Paul, chief executive officer of Palm Beach Vapors, a company based in Tulsa, Okla., told the New York Times that the current e-cigarette and vaping industry is "the wild, wild west right now," and while new rules may be resisted, "everybody fears F.D.A. regulation, but honestly, we kind of welcome some kind of rules and regulations around this liquid." 

A number of changes to bottles and equipment could be made to make e-liquids and vaping more acceptable in terms of health and safety. Child-proof bottle caps and clear, written warnings of e-liquid ingredients are simple changes to improve the state of affairs -- but it is unlikely that these alterations will make vaping more socially acceptable than smoking, or put health fears to rest. 

As it should not. Smoking kills, and it is not known how much e-cigarette and vaping alternatives impact on health. More research needs to be conducted on the subject, but as an alternative to traditional smoking and the vast amounts of toxins found in their smoke, I would personally taking vaping as an option to wean myself off my nicotine addition.  

Image credit: Flickr | Charlie Osborne, SmartPlanet

— By on March 26, 2014, 1:40 AM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure