Arguments about the efficacy of electronic cigarettes as a cessation tool aside, there are a number of myths — each with its own level of validity, or lack thereof — swirling about in the debate over their safety.
Patented in 1963 by Herbert A. Gilbert, it is only with modern advances in battery technology that electronic cigarettes have evolved into a phenomenon. Strolling along the streets of almost any city in America, you’re destined to run into at least one e-cigarette user. Well-versed in both the technical and legal aspects of their devices, these early adopters are no strangers to proselytizing the wonders — occasionally miracles — of their battery powered saviors.
But, are electronic cigarettes truly saviors? Are they fit to deliver us from the evils of traditional — or “analog” — cigarettes?
It is a debate of almost Biblical proportions. On one side, the conservatives, bent as they are on the continuity of tradition, see electronic cigarettes as an unnecessary deviation from established cessation tools. On the other side, the radicals, who saw the aisles of nicotine patches, gum and prescriptions as mere instruments, fit to serve until sounder instruments could be assembled.
In any battle of words between two parties with such polarized views, hyperbole, inaccuracy and uninformed barbs insinuate themselves into the fabric of rational discussion. What could have been a civil analysis of the pros and cons offered by a burgeoning technology becomes a spiteful war of attrition out of which will emerge a winner too weak — too damaged — to celebrate.
There is a place for degradation, for vilification, but not here. Not today. Here, now, we explore five myths that have risen from out of the fog of battle, that have been perpetuated and passed as truth in the war on electronic cigarettes.
Myth 1: Nicotine Causes Cancer
Nicotine is a stimulant drug found in the nightshade family of plants. It is a common mistake to believe that nicotine — by itself — causes cancer. In fact, according to the American College of Chest Physicians, the majority of smokers who favored “light” cigarettes were swayed in their decision by the false belief that a lowered level of nicotine equated to a lowered risk of health conditions.
This belief, however, is mostly untrue.
According to Virginia Reichert director of the Center for Tobacco Control at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Health System, “[p]eople smoke to get the addictive drug, nicotine, but the drug alone does not cause cancer. The delivery system, a cigarette full of hundreds of toxic chemicals that are inhaled along with nicotine, does.”
It is worth noting, however, that recent studies have found that some types of cancer may be triggered by nicotine consumption, and that nicotine also promotes tumor growth and impedes the body’s ability to fight the disease. Still, there’s no comparison between the dangers of nicotine and those of the myriad of other chemicals in regular cigarettes.
There are, in total, over 4,000 chemical compounds created when a cigarette in burned; 69 of those chemicals are known to cause cancer. Compare this to the much shorter list of ingredients in electronic cigarettes, which are composed of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, nicotine, and flavorings, none of which have been shown conclusively to cause cancer.
Myth 2: Electronic Cigarettes Are Just As Dangerous As Regular Cigarettes
With their laundry list of carcinogenic additives, cigarettes are a known danger. As early as 1950, when Richard Doll published his research in the British Medical Journal showing a direct link between smoking and lung cancer, people were aware of the dangers of smoking. Electronic cigarettes, on the other hand, are a less understood variable.
However, while they may be less understood, that by no means implies that they are a complete unknown.
There has been research, for example, into the presence of potentially hazardous “tobacco-specific nitrosamines” in electronic cigarettes and other smoking cessation tools. According to the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, “[a]n independent study by Dr. Murray Laugesen showed that, on average, the electronic cigarette contained 8.18ng nitrosamines per 1g of liquid.” Eight nanograms in one gram equates to eight parts per trillion. Compare this level to the levels found in FDA-approved nicotine patches, 11,190ng.
According to Dr. Laugesen’s research, electronic cigarettes contain 1,200 times less tobacco-specific nitrosamines than products inspected and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Myth 3: Electronic Cigarettes Contain Antifreeze
This damaging rumor began around 2009 when the FDA tested 18 cartridges from two electronic cigarette companies. Their report included a finding that one sample from one cartridge was found to contain diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical found in industrial antifreeze.
On its face, this is fairly damning evidence in support of the “electronic cigarettes contain antifreeze” myth. However, the report detailed in its findings that the levels of diethylene glycol found were nearly untraceable and in no way approached what could be described as a “dangerous level.” Toxic is toxic, though, and no level of dangerous chemicals should be considered acceptable. The small sample size of the FDA’s test led to widespread speculation about the possibility of harmful substances in electronic cigarettes.
And that’s where people looking to discredit electronic cigarettes stop reporting. Why? Because the FDA has never been able to reproduce its findings. While numerous additional studies have been performed, none of them have found levels of diethylene glycol in any electronic cigarette since that initial study in 2009.
Myth 4: Electronic Cigarettes Are Marketed Towards Young People
Among the myriad myths surrounding electronic cigarettes, none is more mind-boggling than the accusation that they are being marketed towards underage users. The entire argument reeks of “think of the children!” level irrationality and diverts the course of conversation from intelligent debate to unproductive knee-jerk reactionism.
In 2010, the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington listed the number of deaths attributed to smoking in the US as 465,651. That same year, poor diets and nutrition led to 678,282 deaths. According to the Rand Corporation, 129.6 million Americans — 64% of the population — are overweight or obese.
In light of these figures, it seems foolish to lambaste electronic cigarette flavors. It makes little sense to assume or thoughtlessly parrot the idea that sweet or candy flavorings are designed to entice younger users. With such a large percentage of Americans overweight due to poor dietary choices, its senseless to police electronic cigarettes while waving the larger — and demonstrably more dangerous — threat past the gates of regulation. Because you know what else tastes like candy? Candy.
Myth 5: Second-Hand Vapor Is Dangerous
A point of contention among the e-cigarette cognoscenti, second-hand vapor has been shown to be “a source of secondhand exposure to nicotine but not to combustion toxicants,” according to one study published by Oxford University. While the study shows that second-hand vapor is not as prolific a pollutant as second-hand cigarette smoke, the verdict is still out on whether or not the contents of second-hand vapor constitute usage of the word “dangerous.”
What must be emphasized, however, is that the results of Oxford’s study revealed that “[t]he average concentration of nicotine resulting from smoking tobacco cigarettes was 10 times higher than from e-cigarettes.” Cancer researcher Maciej Goniewicz — one of the study’s authors — added, “[e]-cigarettes contain variable amounts of nicotine and some traces of toxicants. But very little is known to what extent non-users can be exposed to nicotine and other chemicals in situations when they are present in the same room with users of e-cigarettes.”
While nicotine, in an of itself, is not confirmed to be a carcinogen, it is a highly addictive stimulant. Second-hand vapor could then be considered dangerous if a marginally broader definition of the word danger is applied. So, while this myth is only partially busted, it is reasonable to assume that public bans on smoking — aimed at preventing exposure to second-hand smoke — would extend to cover second-hand vapor.