What is an electronic cigarette?
Electronic cigarettes (also called e-cigarettes and e-cigs) are small, portable electrical devices used as substitutes for traditional tobacco cigarettes. It produces a vapour that looks like tobacco smoke, but it does not use tobacco. Instead, it heats up a liquid, contained in a cartridge, to produce the “fake smoke” vapour. The vaporising liquid contains nicotine, flavourings and other ingredients.
Manufacturers claim the vapour produced by e-cigarettes is safer than tobacco smoke, as it has fewer harmful ingredients. For instance, it does not contain the tar, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen cyanide and ammonia that tobacco has. They also claim e-smoking reduces the health risk of passive smoking, such as that experienced by non-smokers who involuntarily inhale tobacco in the vicinity of tobacco smokers. The device is also punted as an aid for tobacco addicts who want to reduce or quit tobacco smoking.
Apart from the claimed health advantages, e-cigarettes reduce the risk of physical burns and starting a fire, such as that produced by burning tobacco, although the rechargeable batteries can be a fire hazard. The batteries should be recharged with the charger it came with and should not be left unattended while recharging. The batteries must not be re-used if they become damaged or wet.
E-smoking does not produce messy ash and smelly ashtrays. In addition, the vapour of e-cigarettes does not taint the immediate area with the strong smell of tobacco that non-smokers find so annoying.
An e-cigarette consists of:
- A cylindrical tube that houses all the parts.
- A mouthpiece to fit in the mouth of the user.
- A very small battery and on/off switch.
- A microprocessor to control the system.
- A cartridge with liquid in an absorbent material.
- A heating coil and chamber to vaporise the liquid.
Options include a battery charger, a sensor that automatically activates the vaporiser when you suck on the mouthpiece, and an LED light that simulates the glowing tip of a cigarette. There are many more options available, but they are mostly intended for devoted practioners of e-smoking and beyond the scope of this article.
Cheaper e-cigarettes are disposable (commonly called “cigalikes” or “minis”) while more expensive ones come with rechargeable batteries and replaceable cartridges containing the vaporising liquid. Not all e-cigarettes look like traditional cigarettes – they come in many colours and some look like complicated, short mechanical tubes or writing pens, but they all have roughly the same portable size and shape as a traditional cigarette.
The cartridges with the vaporising liquid contain a material that absorbs the liquid and they are available in different flavours, like mint, menthol, vanilla, or original tobacco flavour. You can also choose from a variety of different concentrations of nicotine, from mild to very high.
Other electronic smoking devices are available in shapes that look like traditional cigars (e-cigars) and pipes (e-pipes). You also get handheld devices (advanced personal vaporisers) with larger tanks and options for tweaking it to your personal preferences. The variety of devices and kits in the marketplace can be overwhelming for prospective users looking for a product to start off with.
Users of e-smoking devices are popularly known as “vapers” and the act of using it is called “vaping”. Common nicknames are: E-cigs, vapes, vape pens, hookah pens, e-hookahs, and mods (customisable, more powerful vaporisers). Authorities also refer to it as ENDS (Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems).
Are electronic cigarettes safe?
Despite the claims of reduced hazards by proponents of e-smoking, researchers have found that, though it poses less harm than tobacco, it still releases unhealthy chemicals that can cause serious cardiovascular and lung diseases.
There is also concern about increased nicotine addiction, as the devices are widely available, often with poor application of advertising or age restrictions, and with no warnings on the packaging. This, coupled with clever marketing strategies, attracts new users who had never smoked before. Once people have started with e-smoking, they are more inclined to move on to traditional tobacco smoking.
Electronic cigarettes are aggressively marketed as a medium to help tobacco smokers quit, but new research shows that it is actually creating more nicotine addicts, especially among young people. Also, many smokers only use them in situations where it is required or convenient while continuing with their normal tobacco usage at other times. However, there are instances of people who managed to reduce their consumption of tobacco with the help of these devices. Others have reported less success or feel that it does not taste quite the same or did not reduce their cravings for real tobacco.
The nicotine in e-liquids is readily absorbed into the bloodstream and stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine, which increases blood pressure, breathing and heart rate.
Nicotine also stimulates the release of a brain chemical called dopamine, which creates feelings of well-being. These feelings motivate people to increase their nicotine intake, despite the risks to their health. There are indications that over-exposure to dopamine leads to easier acceptance of other dopamine stimulants, such as alcohol and drugs.
E-smoking also exposes people to a variety of other chemicals, including some produced during the heating process. In tests,the vapours were found to contain harmful carcinogens and toxins, as well as microscopic toxic metal particles from the devices themselves, which are known to cause diseases. The tests found that harmful toxins were present regardless of whether the liquids contained nicotine or not.
It must be said that e-smoking has not yet been exhaustively evaluated in scientific studies. For now, not enough data exists about the full extent of its health effects or how useful they really are for quitting tobacco smoking.
As a result of the above-mentioned tests and concerns, governments and societies have started prohibiting the use of e-smoking devices in public areas and some governments have started introducing regulatory controls and restrictions on the manufacturing, packaging and selling of e-smoking devices.
With the information available, it seems that describing electronic cigarettes as safe, or even “healthier” or “safer” than traditional tobacco cigarettes is misleading. At best, it only seems less unhealthy or less unsafe than tobacco. The only healthy alternative would be total abstinence. For those who are already addicted to tobacco or e-smoking, the best way out is to stop, but addictions should never be stopped without professional health supervision.
Addiction and withdrawal from Nicotine
Most people see smoking as merely a bad habit and, because nicotine addiction does not carry the same infamy as addiction to alcohol and hard drugs, the danger of withdrawing from it is severely under-estimated. The truth is that withdrawal from nicotine addiction is extremely dangerous. Your body actually needs nicotine and normally produces it’s own supply. However, when you start smoking, your body stops producing it’s own nicotine. It does not need to produce it any longer, because it is now constantly getting more nicotine than it needs from an exterior source. When you stop smoking, your body can not immediately resume manufacturing it’s own supply. This sudden cessation of the nicotine supply, causes serious health and mental problems.
Regardless of your view about e-smoking, the fact is that nicotine addiction remains an addiction. People who fall prey to one addiction, become vulnerable to other addictions. Addictions have many causes, but emotional disorders are either the root cause of addictions or they arise during the addiction. It is not wise to replace one substance dependency with another. And mere physical withdrawal does not make provision for filling the emotional vacuum that you previously satisfied with your addictive behaviour – filling the emotional gap that physical withdrawal leaves behind, is equally important if you want to prevent future relapses.
The effects of withdrawal from nicotine addiction are unpredictable and dangerous without a professional health analysis of your personal physical and mental condition and the severity of the addiction. It would be foolish to attempt withdrawal or reduction on your own. Always get advice about your addiction withdrawal from an experienced, professional addiction counsellor.