Many of those who doubt that e-cigarettes can play a significant role in reducing tobacco-related diseases claim that one of the reasons for their opposition is that e-cigs emit an aerosol that is new, untested, and a complete and utter mystery. While those same naysayers might concede that the lack of combustion makes e-cigarettes safer than analog cigarettes, they then go on to argue that e-cigarettes require strict regulation because we need more information about what vapers are inhaling. While this may sound reasonable, the reality is that we already have enough information about the contents of e-cigarettes and their liquids to begin to make informed policy decisions in favor of e-cigarettes.
In 2013, a study was published in Tobacco Control that analyzed a dozen e-cigarette brands readily available in Poland and found that "the levels of potentially toxic compounds in e-cigarette vapor are 9–450-fold lower than those in the smoke from conventional cigarettes, and in many cases comparable with the trace amounts present in pharmaceutical preparations [of nicotine]" (Sullum). A more recent study, published in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, compared American and British e-cigarette and tobacco brands and confirms the previous study’s finding that “the levels of potentially problematic substances in e-cigarette aerosol are about the same as those detected in ambient air” (Sullum).
For the more recent Toxicology study, researchers chose three flavors of Blu e-cigs, as well as two flavors of SKYCIGS. Blu e-cigs are by far the most popular e-cigarette brand in the United States with control of approximately 50 percent of the market. SKYCIGS represent a formidable slice of the U.K. market, accounting for 30 percent of all e-cigarettes sold in that country. The output of these products was compared with the smoke generated by Marlboro Golds and two varieties of Lambert & Butler cigarettes, and samples of ambient air were taken to provide a baseline comparison.
It may come as no surprise that analysis of the smoke from conventional cigarettes showed that cigarette smoke produced approximately 1500 times more harmful and potentially harmful constituents (HPHCs) when compared to puffing room air. But the results of the analysis showed a similar disparity between cigarette smoke and e-cigarette aerosol, with cigarette smoke being vastly more toxic. In fact, the amounts of HPHCs found for the e-cigarettes were similar to the study air blanks, and not at all like the amounts that were collected from conventional cigarettes. For all the compound classes tested, e-cigarettes did not significantly contribute any of the harmful and potentially harmful constituents that were found in cigarette smoke. Therefore, the results of this study demonstrate that e-cigarettes have the potential to dramatically reduce harmful exposure compared to cigarette smoke.
Analysis of the e-cigarettes in this study revealed that 70 to 85 percent of their aerosols were composed of glycerin or propylene glycol, 10 to 19 percent consisted of water, 3 to 11 percent was flavoring, and nicotine made up approximately 1 to 2 percent. The researchers measured eight kinds of harmful or potentially harmful constituents: carbon monoxide, carbonyls, phenolics, volatiles, metals, tobacco-specific nitrosamines, polyaromatic amines, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, all of which can cause serious health issues, especially with repeated and/or long term exposure. The combined weight of all of these compounds after 99 puffs from a Blu Classic Tobacco Disposable was less than 0.17 milligram, very close to the 0.16 milligram generated by 99 puffs of air. In stark contrast, a single Marlboro Gold cigarette generated 180 times that number of HPHCs, or 30.6 milligrams. A puff per puff comparison showed that the Marlboro Gold generated 3,357 nanograms of HPHCs, or 2,000 times as much as the Blu e-cig. It is also interesting to note that e-cigarette samples yielded approximately 30 μg of nicotine per puff which was 85% lower than the 200 μg/puff found from the conventional cigarette samples.
Studies like this one provide clear evidence that e-cigarettes are very different from conventional cigarettes. Implying that the emissions from these dissimilar products are equally dangerous is to either be ignorant of the available information, or to willfully ignore it to further some agenda. If the ultimate goal of public health officials and legislators is to reduce the number of deaths from smoking, then policy decisions should be based on legitimate scientific evidence, rather than hearsay and political posturing.
While it is encouraging that this study found that the amounts of HPHCs in e-cigarette aerosol and air were very similar, it doesn’t mean that inhaling e-cigarettes is just as safe as breathing air. The long-term effects of inhaling glycerin or propylene glycol are still unknown, meaning that vaping still offers a measure of risk. It is also important to keep in mind that the e-cigarette industry is still largely unregulated, so manufacturing practices and ingredients could vary widely from one product to the next. At the same time, the evidence in favor of e-cigs over conventional tobacco continues to grow, in spite of negative media attention. Whatever the long-term effects of e-cigs turn out to be, it is clear that smoking cigarettes is still far worse.
Hafrey, Jimmy. “Scientists Shocked After Testing E-cig Vapor in the Lab.” Churnmag.com. n.p. 9 Mar. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
Sullum, Jacob. “Study Confirms that E-Cigarettes Generate Virtually No Toxins: Levels are about the same as those found in air.” Hit and Run Blog. Reason.com. 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
Tayyarah, Rana and Gerald A. Long. “Comparison of select analytes in aerosol from e-cigarettes with smoke from conventional cigarettes and with ambient air.” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.70.3 (2014) 704-710. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.