The One Huge Lie You Were Told About E-Cigarettes, Debunked

The lie: E-cigarettes are safe. 

Because users don't have to light up tobacco to smoke, the conventional (and manufacturer's) wisdom goes, they don't inhale as many carcinogens. So allegedly, they don't cause cancer, irritate the lungs or contribute as significantly to other diseases like asthma or diabetes.

The truth: There's still no such thing as a safe cigarette. Even if it's electronic.

E-cigs are far from the harmless smoking alternative they've been cracked up to be. When vapers puff on electronic cigs, they inhale tiny toxic particles that can not only irritate and inflame the lungs but may also cause cancer, asthma, diabetes, stroke and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

Did anyone really think vaporizing and inhaling poisonous chemicals would be completely safe?

They might even be more dangerous: Worse still, because early e-cigarettes didn't deliver the same powerful nicotine hit as burning tobacco, manufacturers developed technology for users to increase their e-cig voltage and temperature to get more nicotine each time they inhale. The higher temperatures, unfortunately, can also cause the chemicals in the cigs to break down, reaching the same levels of the cancer-causing formaldehyde found in traditional tobacco cigarettes. (The same study also found that at lower voltages, e-cigs produce up to 800 times less formaldehyde than a conventional cigarette.)

At the end of the day, however, size may matter more than temperature. Because the particles in e-cigarettes are much smaller than in tobacco cigs (0.18-0.27 microns compared with 0.3-0.5 microns), the toxins can travel deep into the lungs. And that is where they cause disease.


There's another problem, too. By marketing electronic cigarettes as sexy using the same advertising techniques of the 1950s and '60s, e-cig companies threaten to weaken one of the largest American public health victories in history. Unlike Camels and Marlboros, users can vape Blus and Halos in many of the public places where traditional cigarettes can't be smoked. (While 28 states and the District of Columbia ban smoking at work, only three — New Jersey, Utah and North Dakota — include e-cigarettes in those bans).


What's possibly even worse, e-cigs are not subject to the same marketing restrictions as tobacco cigarettes, even though many of them are produced by the same companies. Like conventional cigs, many e-cigarette ads target children. Between 2011 and 2013, youth exposure to e-cig campaigns jumped 256%.



Image Credit: Addiction and Recovery News

The e-cig biz is, unfortunately, booming. All accounted for, 450 American companies are raking in $2 billion every year.

Of course, for the minority of people who've turned to e-cigs to try to stop smoking, electronic cigarettes may be less dangerous than their tobacco counterparts. Unlike a traditional cigarette, which burns tobacco leaves doused in 599 additives (69 of which have been found to cause cancer), electronic cigs heat up a liquid solution of nicotine and flavorings, creating an aerosol that is inhaled or vaped.

But research has shown that most e-cig vapers aren't using them for quitting. And since vaping is still relatively new, scientists have no long-term studies to lay out all of the health risks associated with e-cigs.

So even if electronic cigarettes do turn out to be less harmful than traditional cigarettes, they are still far from safe, and that's a lie we can't afford to ignore. 

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Erin Brodwin

Erin is a science and health writer whose work has appeared in Newsweek, Popular Science, Scientific American and Psychology Today.

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