The Truth About the Safety of Electronic Cigarettes

By Lindsay Fox Posted November 14, 2012

The media feeds on negativity. A story about trace amounts of a carcinogen found in an electronic cigarette is much more likely to be covered extensively and disseminated into public knowledge than ones which show them to be no more dangerous than nicotine gum or patches. Opposition from tobacco companies, anti-smoking groups and nicotine replacement therapy manufacturers plays into the hands of scaremongers, but numerous scientific studies reveal the true facts, untainted by misinformation and bias.


Firstly, it’s important to note that e-cigarettes are a relatively new phenomenon, having only been discovered in 2003. It’s undeniable that more research needs to be done into their effects before any truly definitive conclusions can be reached. There is no evidence of the long-term effects of e-cigarettes, but the studies that have been conducted provide no reasonable grounds to be concerned, particularly when compared to tobacco cigarettes. In essence, e-cigarettes provide vaporized nicotine in pure form.


Cigarettes Contain Over 4000 ChemicalsTraditional tobacco cigarettes contain around 5,000 identified chemicals, and Boston University researcher Michael Siegel estimates that there could be up to around 100,000 that are yet to be identified. Many of these are carcinogens, and this Molotov cocktail of poisons is responsible for the various well-documented risks of smoking. E-cigarettes, on the other hand, contain nicotine, propylene glycol (or vegetable glycerine) and some commonly used food flavorings.


Reports of additional substances found in e-cigarettes are widely over-blown. One study looked at eighteen different e-cigarettes and found that one of them contained 1 percent diethylene glycol, a chemical dramatically pointed out to be a common component of antifreeze. However, the same chemical is found in aspirin in ten times higher quantities, and in an ordinary cigarette in forty times higher quantities. Tobacco-specific nitrosamines were also detected in e-cigarettes, but these carcinogens were only found in extremely low quantities. An analysis by Michael Siegel shows that they are present in tobacco cigarettes at between 300 and 1,400 times the quantities. E-cigarettes are comparable in nitrosamine levels to FDA-approved nicotine patches. He also points out that these levels were in the e-cigarette cartridge, not in the inhaled vapor.


The myriad chemicals in tobacco smoke include 56 additional known carcinogens, compared to e-cigarettes which have none in anything other than trace quantities. It’s been calculated that an individual would have to consume something around 12,000 entire cartridges containing diethylene glycol and propylene glycol within 24 hours to be exposed to them in toxic levels. The average vaper goes through 1.5 per day, and heavier vapers consume around three.


Nicotine is the main chemical associated with smoking, so it is often assumed to cause cancer or carry other health risks. There is no evidence to believe that this is true, and as you’ve learnt, there are many more potent carcinogens to worry about in tobacco smoke. A study that looked at the effect of pure nicotine inhalation on rats over the course of two years confirmed that there is no indication of “any harmful effect of nicotine when given in its pure form by inhalation.” The rats were exposed to double the nicotine that long term smokers consume for 20 hours a day, five days per week, and neither died more often nor developed tumors more than the control group.


A review of 26 pieces of research into e-cigarettes conducted by Zachary Cahn and Michael Siegel hammers the final nail into the coffin of the arguments against their safety. They covered many of the same points raised in this article, but after looking extensively at the research concluded that “[electronic cigarettes] are undoubtedly safer than tobacco cigarettes.” This is the most important comparison, because even if e-cigarettes are proven to have long-term health risks (however unlikely that may be), they are still demonstrably safer than the tobacco alternative.


For smokers who don’t want to quit but are still concerned about the health risks, electronic cigarettes are a considerably safer alternative. The majority of the evidence dredged up against them collapses under even the most simplistic scrutiny, and when compared to tobacco cigarettes even the most sensationalist news stories still make it obvious that e-cigarettes are safer. Many media outlets do acknowledge the potential benefits of e-cigarettes, but anything claiming that they’re dangerous should clearly be examined closely before being taken seriously. The basic truth is that smoking is substantially more dangerous than vaping.