E-Cigarettes – What’s The Harm?

Thomas Holloway, Biology 3rd Year


What makes some people smoke? Is it an addictive personality…? Some uncanny Freudian oral fixation…? Something to do with the circadian clock or our genes? – who knows – but smoking has been humanity’s unhealthy fixation for at least 7000 years; since South American shamen inhaled the smoke from smouldering leaves of the Tobacco plant in huge piles to bring them closer to the spirit world. Arriving in the ‘new world’ in 1492, Columbus was offered ‘certain dried leaves’, he writes in his journal that ‘gave off a distinct fragrance’ – he didn’t like it, but the Portuguese that arrived soon after couldn’t get enough of it.

They cultivated it in Brasil, Sir Francis Drake brought the pipe back to England, Drake gave it to Sir Walter Raleigh, Walter gave it to Queen Elizabeth I and by the turn of the 1600s Sir Francis Bacon writes that Tobacco’s use is rapidly increasing and it is a ‘custom hard to quit’. The real smoking revolution occurs with the co-invention of the cigarette and the match in the mid 19th centaury; making smoking accessible and convenient – the rest is history.

That is, up until recently – with the invention of the Electronic cigarette (aka E-cig, technofogger, futurefag, vaporiser, atomiser etc); a product that has become so popular among smokers in the last decade that a new language and culture has developed around it. The first e-cig was invented in the ‘60s by Herbert A. Gilbert, but it never caught on in a decade when ¾ of men and ½ of women were happy smoking ‘analogue cigarettes’, not realising that it was slowly killing them. Smokers had to wait another 40 years for the commercialisation of electronic cigarettes in the form of the “Ruyan Ruyan V8”, developed by the Chinese pharmaceuticals company Golden Dragon. Since then, over 100 e-cig companies have flooded the UK market, looking for a slice of the 340 million pound pie.

Now, as a failed ex-smoker of 6 (or maybe 7) years, these new gadgets appeal to me for a number of reasons. Besides the fact that I can smoke inside as I write this, they’re relatively cheap, satisfying to smoke and supposedly healthy. Apparently, smoking Brits seem to agree, with an uptake of 18% according to a 2014 YouGov poll. E-cigs however, are largely unregulated and medical associations have remarkably conflicting views on their potential risks.

The BMA worries about uptake amongst young people and the risks of passive vaping, seeking to ban e-cigarettes in public and regulate them under the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) claims that uptake among teenagers is less than 1% and that the risks of passive smoking are negligible; quoting e-cigs as the most effective way for smokers to quit, overtaking other nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) such as patches, nicotine gum and inhalers by 60% in 2014.

But are they safe? In the absence of long-term clinical trials all we can do is look at the ingredients list and test what comes out the back. E-cigs vaporise a viscous mixture of propylene glycol (a common food additive you might find in cupcakes to keep them moist), Glycerol (also in food as a sweetener and preservative), a flavouring, and of course the ridiculously addictive Tobacco derivative nicotine. All these ingredients are safe to eat (except nicotine, that’ll kill you if you eat more than a gram) but nobody really knows what breathing them in all day will do to your lungs.

Animal studies have shown e-cig vapours contain diethylene glycol (responsible for mass poisonings of Nigerian children from exposure to counterfeit medication in 2009) along with carcinogenic Tobacco specific nitroamines and other impurities associated with nicotine extraction. Heavy metal nanoparticles, such as tin, chromium and nickel, have also been found to flake off the electronic components of the heating element and travel deep into the lungs.

It isn’t easy to compare these findings with the 4000 or so carcinogens that make traditional smoking the largest preventable cause of premature mortality in the UK. With big Tobacco companies fighting to buy-up E-cigarette manufacturers, and the Tobacco lobby vying with government regulatory agencies, it is hard to know weather we will ever definitively know weather e-cigs are all they’re cracked up to be. However, with uptake at unprecedented levels, it’s likely to become more and more a part of British culture; for better or worse.

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