Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

E-Cigarettes: A Safer Alternative to Smoking or the Tobacco Industry’s Latest Ploy?

<rly last December, New York City voted to ban the smoking of e-cigarettes in public places. The decision, which was one of outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last objectives, inserts e-cigarettes into the definition of smoking in the Smoke Free Air Act, making them banned wherever traditional cigarettes are banned.

The vote has naturally been controversial. Those that believe e-cigarettes are a harmless alternative to traditional smoking have criticized it, while those who feel the jury is still out on the product’s safety have praised the ban’s progressiveness. Who is right on the matter, however, remains quite unclear.

New York City was the fist city to take a stance on e-cigarettes, a product which has become increasingly popular in recent years. A lithium battery operated device, e-cigarettes contain a “cartomizer” filled with e-liquid composed of nicotine, propylene glycol and other chemicals, which is heated to produce a vapor. The device is intended to mimic a traditional tobacco cigarette.

Remarkably, little is known about the health effects and safety of smoking e-cigarettes or inhaling second-hand vapor. According to an article published in Science Times last August, “e-cigarettes contain about the same amount of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic compound, as regular cigarettes,” as well as other “potentially dangerous compounds, including traces of acrolein, a chemical used in the production of acrylic acid and biocide.”

In a recent CNN article, the president and CEO of the American Lung Association, Harold P. Wimmer, wrote that  “in 2009, a lab test conducted by the FDA found detectable levels of toxic-cancer causing chemicals–including an ingredient used in anti-freeze–in two leading brands of e-cigarettes and 18 various e-cigarette cartridges.”

But these assertions must be tempered with rationalizations from the opposing team. Tom Kiklas, the president and co-founder of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, points out that “nicotine is classified as a secondary stimulant, the same as caffeine,” and that “E-smoke vapor contains just five chemicals…compared with the up to 9,000 chemicals that have been identified in tobacco smoke.”

He believes that e-smoke is essentially innocuous water vapor, and although he may exaggerate the chemical content of regular cigarettes–the American Lung Association reports 600 ingredients in cigarettes that create more than 4,000 chemicals when burned–his sentiment is correct: for all the hoopla about the handful of toxic chemicals that have to date been identified in e-cigarettes, the number necessarily pales in comparison to those present in regular cigarettes.

Just because, however, e-cigarettes are in all likelihood safer that normal cigarettes does not mean they are safe, and it certainly does not mean, as Kiklas believes, that “there is nothing to study.” There are around 250 e-cigarettes on the market and currently, no restrictions on their ingredients exists. The FDA has the power to regulate them under tobacco laws, but as of now, they’ve taken no actions towards doing so, instead only warning marketers to stop making unsubstantiated claims about the product. On their government website, the FDA warns that “e-cigarettes have not been fully studied so consumers currently don’t know: the potential risks of e-cigarettes when used as intended, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or if there are any benefits associated with using these products.”

Of course, this claims begs the question: what exactly is known about this product? By making such a claim, the FDA exonerates themselves from liability, but so long as they restrain from properly regulating e-cigarettes, they give Big Tobacco–the actor behind most of these products–a free-pass to essentially market, advertise and sell them however they would like. And most individuals and associations who have fought strongly over the past seventy years for strict regulations of smoking advertisements feel that Big Tobacco is simply up to its old tricks with e-cigarette advertisements, trying to addict a new generation of e-smokers.

Wimmer vehemently believes that “e-cigarettes are being aggressively marketed to children with flavors like Bazooka Bubble gum, Cap-n Crunch and Cotton Candy,” as well as advertisements containing cartoon characters that are eerily reminiscent of Big Tobacco’s lovable old character Joe the Camel. Indeed, in the midst of my research I came across an e-cigarette ad by one of the more popular brands, Blu, that featured a cartoon man named “Bob.” In the ad, Bob–a young, regular guy–exclaims that an e-cigarette is like “the world’s smallest fog machine!” and because it produces “no odor, no smoke, no ash,” he doesn’t have to go outside to smoke anymore, but can smoke while partying with his friends.

It’s undeniable, too, that “vaping”–as smoking e-cigarettes is called–has become increasingly popular among young adults and in particular, middle and high-school aged kids. According to Wimmer, 1 in 10 high school students have tried an e-cigarette and “altogether, 1.78 million middle and high school students nationwide use e-cigarettes.” Natalee Johnson, a nurse at SHAC, feels that for young adults in particular, e-cigarettes are “experimental and a novelty,” trendy now in the same way that hookahs were trendy in the 90s.

The proliferation of e-cigarette use among kids so young also seems suggests that they are being adopted independently of normal cigarette use. Ken Abrams, a Carleton psychology professor who has been studying the link between anxiety disorders and nicotene dependence in smokers, remarked that there are “a lot of underage high school who are not substituting it [e-cigarettes] for smoking, but are picking it up from scratch because of the marketing campaign that smoking e-cigarettes is wild and cool and hip.”

Abrams believes that, by using attractive models on TV and creating fruity new flavors like piña colada and cherry, the tobacco industry is “trying to market it [the e-cigarette] like cigarette companies did fifty years ago, to attract new clientele.” While marketers praise e-cigarettes as an effective method of quitting smoking, such efficacy has yet to be proved, and for young, non-smokers who pick up “vaping,” Abrams said, “it’s clearly much much worse to be smoking an e-cigarette than to be smoking nothing.”

The claim that e-cigarettes can help smokers quit smoking, moreover, may actually lead to increased experimentation with e-cigarettes in the younger demographic, as a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests.

The study, which collected 1379 young adults in Minnesota to “identify the beliefs predicting subsequent use of e-cigarettes,” found that those “who believed e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking and perceived e-cigarettes to be less harmful than cigarettes at baseline were more likely to report experimenting with e-cigarettes at follow-up.” Participants had a mean age of 24.1, but the study’s conclusion feels broad enough to apply to the teenage demographic as well–“given that young adults are still developing their tobacco use behaviors, informing them about the lack of evidence to support e-cigarettes as quit aids and the unknown health risk of e-cigarettes may deter young adults from trying these products.”

And yet, if e-cigarettes are actually being used by smokers for the purpose of quitting smoking, their recent popularity can perhaps be painted in a positive light. In an Op-Ed published in The New York Times titled “Two Cheers for E-Cigarettes,” Joe Nocera describes the e-cigarette as “an innovative device that can help people wean themselves from the deadly product [of traditional cigarettes]. It has the same look and feel as the lethal product; indeed, that’s a large part of its appeal. It, too, is addictive. But the ingredients that kill people are absent.” He criticizes anti-smoking associations like the American Lung Association for attacking e-cigarettes with the same vehemence as they have traditional cigarettes, treating the products as if they were one in the same.

Whether, though, we can praise the e-cigarette for its potential as a quit-aid, Abrams commented, “my suspicion is that for someone who is a smoker, an e-cigarette is a safer alternative because most of, or all of, the carcinogenic effects [in a traditional cigarette] are from the tobacco rather than the nicotine itself. Nicotine isn’t carcinogenic.” Of course, non-carcinogenic doesn’t mean harmless. Nicotene, Abrams emphasized, “does have its own set of undesirable health effects, including arteriosclerosis, cardiovascular problems…constriction of blood vessels [that] can lead to some problems in developing fetuses, greater risk of birth deformities…it’s not harm free.” And, he concluded, we still cannot know “the extent to which e-cigarettes will help a person quit smoking as opposed to having just a substitute, slightly healthier perhaps, addiction.”

It is difficult to gauge the number of e-cigarette smokers at Carleton in part because we have not developed the language to address the new trend. Our health forms ask if students smoke, but do not specifically ask about e-cigarettes. This is in an issue because, according to Johnson, “many don’t consider it [smoking e-cigarettes] smoking” and therefore, the number of individuals “vaping” on campus remains unknown. College policy prohibits smoking in all indoor public places and residential living spaces, but makes no mention of e-cigarettes, which some don’t even consider a tobacco product–although nicotene, its primary ingredient, is derived from the tobacco plant.

As the popularity of e-cigarettes increases–and it seems likely it will, especially in places like Minnesota, since one of the advertised benefits of e-cigarettes is that one does not have to venture into the bitter polar vortex to smoke–the college and students will have to decide, as New York City did, what stance to take on the issue. Will we allow e-cigarette smoking in class, in the library, in dorms room? Maybe, or maybe not. Regardless, inaction is an action in and of itself, because without any policy or decisions, the college–and the rest of the country, for that matter (with the exception of New York City)–remains the “wild west,” a gray zone, an atmosphere where not much is known and anything goes. 

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *