Electronic Cigarettes: Potential Benefits, Potential Risks

Portrait of woman smoking with electronic cigarette

Emerging in the early 2000s, electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-powered devices meant to replicate the sensation of smoking cigarettes and cigars.  Some times referred to as “vaping”, e-cigarettes generate an aerosol via a heating process that evaporates an internal fluid (often propylene or vegetable glycol).

Because e-cigarettes can be sold with or without nicotine, they are popular among those attempting to limit or cease tobacco use.  However, because of the limited data that exists about the use of e-cigarettes, the safety and effectiveness of such products is still heavily debated among health experts.

Potential Benefits

When it comes to the benefits, proponents cite reduced health risks as a primary argument for e-cigarettes.  Some health officials and groups, including the Canadian Cancer Society, suggest that e-cigarettes don’t contain as many chemicals or carcinogens as traditional cigarettes.

Additionally, health experts suggest that e-cigarettes could be used by smokers as a cessation tool, slowly weaning individuals off of traditional tobacco-containing products through the gradual reduction of nicotine over time.  Since e-cigarettes mimic the aft of smoking, the transition to a smoke-free lifestyle may be easier and more natural compared to those using nicotine gum and patches for the same purposes.

For smokers, e-cigarettes are also appealing because they lack a distinctive smell and are less expensive than traditional tobacco products.  The average cost for a pack-a-day smoker using traditional cigarettes is about $10 per day as compared to $1.75 per day for an e-cigarette user with similar smoking habits.

Potential Risks

Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes lack a consensus from the health care community regarding their impact on smokers and the general public.  In terms of direct and indirect (second-hand smoke) exposure, health officials are unsure of the long-term health impact of inhaling propylene or vegetable glycol.

While some e-cigarettes can contain less chemicals and carcinogens than cigarettes, those who use e-cigarettes may still ingest various chemicals, including nicotine.

Nicotine is a highly addictive stimulant that can cause increased blood pressure and an elevated heart rate. Consumers should be aware that some e-cigarettes in Canada that are marketed as nicotine-free are actually not.  Canada’s Food and Drugs Act requires products containing nicotine to be approved by Health Canada.  However, e-cigarettes containing nicotine are often available online or marketed in retail outlets in Canada as nicotine free – although this is illegal, enforcement is limited.

In the United States – where e-cigarettes are popular and more widely available – voluntary reporting to the country’s Food and Drug Administration suggests that the adverse effects of e-cigarettes may include pneumonia, congestive heart failure, disorientation, seizures, hypotension and more.  However, the research is considered inconclusive as the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes have yet to be thoroughly studied.

As e-cigarettes increase in popularity, a number of health organizations worry that they could become a gateway to traditional cigarettes, due to their addictiveness and similarity to conventional smoking.  This is especially alarming considering that e-cigarettes are most popular among young people ages 15 to 24.

Much like traditional cigarettes, some provinces have banned the use of e-cigarettes in public spaces.  Additionally, Ontario does not allow the sale of e-cigarettes to those under the age of 19.  Currently, Health Canada advises against the use of e-cigarettes, as the safety of such products has not been fully evaluated.

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