Electronic Cigarettes Under Fire: Hidden Risk Or Effective Cure?

Electronic Cigarettes

Electronic cigarettes are hailed as the healthier, more considerate alternative to traditional tobacco, but new research may force those claims to go up in smoke.

It took a long time, and a lot of public education, but cigarette smoking is at an all time low. The American Cancer Society reports that “cigarette smoking has decreased among adults in the United States from about 42% of the population in 1965 to about 19% in 2011.” Before you start your victory dance, that still means that about 43.8 million (or 1 in every 5) adults smoke cigarettes.

In recent years, electronic cigarettes have emerged as a possible antidote to our cultural obsession with smoking. Rather than burning tobacco, these battery-powered devices use heat to vaporize liquid nicotine. This delivers the desired buzz, but produces no smoke, which means anti-smoking regulations don’t apply.

Sounds great, right? Smokers get the nicotine they crave and the rest of us get to breathe clean air. There’s even some evidence that people who switch from real tobacco to electronic cigarettes are more likely than those who use nicotine patches to quit smoking altogether. Unfortunately, new research also suggests that these hand-held vaporizers might not be the benign substitute that e-cigarette companies want us to think they are (surprise, surprise).


A study published recently in France’s National Consumer Institute claims that electronic cigarettes contain “a significant quantity of carcinogenic molecules” despite the fact that they don’t burn real tobacco.

“Using a new method of testing, researchers found that in three out of the ten e-cigs studied, the level of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, came close to the amount in conventional cigarettes,” reports The Week. “Furthermore, a highly toxic molecule called acrolein was detected “sometimes at levels even higher than in traditional cigarettes,” said Thomas Laurenceau, chief editor of the magazine.

These findings confirm what the US Food and Drug Administration hinted at back in 2009. At the time, the agency, which has not approved electronic cigarettes, said that some samples contained ingredients found in anti-freeze.

If this is true, and electronic cigarettes do contain all of the same cancer-causing crap as traditional tobacco products, is it wrong to exempt them from smoking bans? Is allowing these vaporizers to be used indoors, even on airplanes, a dangerous hypocrisy that puts the rest of us at risk?

New York City Mayor Bloomberg seems to think so. Electronic cigarettes are the focus of the ban-happy Mayor’s latest health campaign. “The city’s Health Committee is considering several proposed ordinances related to cigarettes, including one that would classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products,” reports The Week. If successful, e-cig smokers would be out in the cold with their tobacco-smoking counterparts.

Such a ban, just like laws against traditional smoking in public places, is controversial. Should people be allowed to decide what they put into their bodies, harmful or not? Or is it the government’s place to protect public health by limiting the use of both real and electronic cigarettes? Share your thoughts in a comment.

Related on Ecosalon:

Protecting Yourself From The 20 Percent of People Who Still Smoke

What’s Behind The Surprise Global Spike In Female Smoking?

Image: Ibrahim Ba’im and Equazcion