With the rise in the e-cigarette’s popularity,Shauna Maguire investigates how much we truly know about these devices

With sales of e-cigarettes predicted to outgrow those of conventional cigarettes within the next decade, we are left asking how much we actually know about these inventions and how safe they truly are from a health perspective.

First introduced to the Chinese domestic market in 2004, electronic cigarettes are battery-powered vaporizers.  The term ‘vaping’ is used to describe the smoking of e-cigarettes, due to the fact that they do not produce smoke but instead vapour. The device consist of three parts; a battery, a heating element and a cartridge. The cartridge holds a liquid (usually containing nicotine) to be vaporized by the heating element. The marketed idea is that smoking an e-cigarette simulates a conventional tobacco cigarette but without the four thousand chemicals found in the latter. But what exactly is present in the vapour produced by these e-cigarettes and what are the health implications of inhaling it on a daily basis? The answers to these questions are still unknown.

Very few studies have been carried out with regard to the health risks of e-cigarettes and those that are available yield inconclusive evidence. With so many unknowns surrounding their health effects, the sale of e-cigarettes is prohibited in countries such as Brazil, Singapore and Uruguay. A study published by the University of California recently concluded that while second-hand exposure to e-cigarette vapour contains lower levels of carcinogenic particles than in conventional cigarette smoke, it is not without its own risks. Levels of other toxic chemicals were detected in the vapour exhaled by e-cigarette smokers, including nickel, lead and chromium. EU regulation of e-cigarettes appears to be on its way and due to arrive between 2015 and 2016 but currently their manufacture is a non-regulated industry. There is nothing protecting the general public from the sale of low quality devices and cartridges.

There appears to be many people who have weaned themselves off tobacco and claimed that e-cigarettes played a major role in the process. However, there have not been any scientific studies carried out to prove their effectiveness as such an aid.  Those cautious of the devices have posed the question; if these e-cigarettes can help people in quitting smoking, then why are the world’s largest tobacco companies investing millions in this market? In 2012 Lorillard, the third largest manufacturer of cigarettes in the United States at the time, bought the leading e-cigarette brand Blu for $135 million dollars. Lorillard has since been taken over by rival company Reynolds in a $27 billion deal. Reynolds has launched its own brand of e-cigarettes and has dropped Blu since the takeover.

There have also been concerns voiced over the glamorisation of e-cigarettes. In the U.S., specialised “vaping stores” are beginning to pop up. These shops provide a space for e-cigarette users to sample, buy and use their e-cigarettes. The vaping liquids sold there come in a huge variety of flavours ranging from ordinary tobacco to champagne, blueberry and caramel toffee. Vaping has become a cultural phenomenon of its own, exceeding just ex-tobacco users and attracting users who may never have smoked a regular cigarette in their lives. With celebrity endorsements from the likes of Leonardo de Caprio and the product’s futuristic appearance, it is feared that vaping is sending out the wrong message about smoking. In many places those under the age of 18 are not prohibited from purchasing e-cigarettes. When this is combined with the range of candy-like flavours available for the devices, it is believed that young and vulnerable people will be drawn into the culture.

It is of course quite likely that vaping is far less damaging to one’s health than smoking tobacco, but what about the effects of second hand vapour? Surely while the effects are not known it would make sense for people who do not smoke at all to steer clear of the vapours. The old saying “A little poison is good for you” may not hold any truth in this situation. E-cigarettes are not regulated at present in Ireland and they can be used in public spaces. In August 2014, the World Health Organization published recommendations calling for the regulation of e-cigarettes. The report included suggestions to governments to ban e-cigarettes in public spaces, restrict the ability of manufacturers to advertise them as smoking aids, prohibit the selling of e-cigarettes to individuals under 18 and ban their use in vending machines. In April of this year, New York and Chicago implemented a ban on the use of e-cigarettes in any place where the smoking of conventional cigarettes is prohibited. Critics of e-cigarettes see this step as a precedent to the regulation of e-cigarettes by the FDA.

Whatever the outcome of future studies on e-cigarettes, it will be a number of years before we know the long-term health risks. Is it a wise choice for smokers to switch to vaping in the mean time? Only time will tell.