Thanks to their convenience and possible health advantages, e-cigarettes have caught the American public’s imagination. With more and more venues banning smoking and an ever-growing mountain of evidence linking an increasing number of deadly diseases and life-limiting conditions to conventional tobacco use, a viable alternative to cigarettes was bound to excite interest.
Many US consumers see in e-cigarettes a real opportunity to wean themselves off an addiction to tobacco.
Gums, patches and NRT candies containing nicotine were once celebrated as an infallible solution for the would-be quitter but have never lived up to their promise. This is at least partly because they don’t provide users with anything to replace the physical rituals around smoking. Some have found nicotine inhalers useful. These devices have their own drawbacks, however. Few would claim they offer a convincing replacement for the experience of smoking a cigarette.
This is one of several reasons that e-cigarettes have been enjoying a steady increase in popularity. In the early part of the decade, e-cigarette use grew by around 7.5 percent in a single year. Why, then, are e-cigarettes still regarded as controversial?
Some suggest that the answer lies with the US Food and Drug Administration. In 2009 the FDA held a press conference on the subject of e-cigarettes, deploring their growing use. During this press conference, the FDA claimed that toxic and carcinogenic material had been found in some cartridges. They also revealed that some cartridges that were sold as nicotine-free were found to contain nicotine. The agency also placed some emphasis on the fact that e-cigarettes are largely untested. Based on these and other criticisms, the FDA sought to place restrictions on the import of e-cigarettes and their sale in the US.
Some critics — not only e-cigarette users and manufacturers but less biased parties — saw the FDA’s stance on e-cigarettes as being founded on weak science. While acknowledging that traces of toxic substances have occasionally been found in isolated cartridges, the actual levels found have been very low. Better checks on imported cartridges, argue proponents of e-cigarettes, would effectively take care of this problem without a ban.
There’s also the matter of the “smoke juice” used in e-cigarettes.
This is the e-cigarette liquid which is heated to produce the vapor users inhale instead of smoke. Typically, it is propylene glycol — a substance which can cause cancer. That said, propylene glycol is only dangerous above certain dosages and it’s very possible that the amounts inhaled when “smoking” an e-cigarette would be far too small to be a real risk. Propylene glycol is already approved for many everyday uses: you can find it not just in paints and detergents but in toiletries and even makeup.
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E-cigarettes are a recent development, meaning that the FDA’s criticism of them as “untested” is quite valid.
We can’t yet say with absolute certainty that such a new device would cause harm to users in the future. On the other hand, e-cigarettes are largely being used in place of conventional tobacco cigarettes. Regular cigarettes pose very real dangers to those who use them, dangers that have been amply demonstrated. To some, the nebulous and entirely theoretical harm postulated by opponents of e-cigarettes seems like less of concern.
An FDA block on the importation of e-cigarettes in 2009 was thwarted by a successful lawsuit against the agency. According to a New York Times article about the case, the resulting injunction forced the FDA to back down until they could find more solid evidence that e-cigarettes pose a credible health risk.
Since the FDA’s press conference in 2009, more recent studies seem to have overturned the information they relied upon in criticizing e-cigarettes. The debate still rages; but as evidence mounts that electronic cigarettes are a healthier alternative to conventional tobacco, it seems likely that e-cigarettes are here to stay.