E-cigarettes are electronic devices that emulate traditional, tobacco cigarettes. They produce a vapour that is potentially less dangerous than the smoking emitted by tobacco cigarettes, and which often carries the nicotine that provides users with a brief, temporary high.
Since the emergence of e-cig use, otherwise known as vaping, in the last decade, it has become increasingly popular. And although the government has yet to establish the long-term effects of vaping – which prevents e-cigs being marketed as a genuine aid to stopping cigarette smoking – they are nonetheless sold as healthier and cheaper alternatives to cigarettes.
Modern e-cigs were first patented by Chinese inventor Hon Lik, in whose country vaping soared in popularity. Sixty per cent of Chinese men are smokers, and since 2003 vaping has become hugely widespread.
E-cig starter kits, which usually include a charger and a few cartridges along with the e-cigarette itself, typically retail for about £30 to £40. Much like a fountain pen, the e-liquid cartridge is replaced as it runs out, or it can be refilled using a commercially available e-liquid like Phoenix e-liquid. Generally a refill will last about as long as 20 cigarettes.
E-cigs comprise a pen-like holder and a central, replaceable inhaler cartridge containing an e-liquid. This e-liquid is often composed of vegetable glycerin and polyethylene glycol, as well as flavouring and the hit-providing nicotine. As a user inhales from the e-cig, a sensor triggers a vaporiser that in turn rapidly heats a small amount of liquid flavouring. The liquid evaporates into a small cloud of vapour, and the resulting mist is drawn into the user’s mouth – mimicking the sensation of smoking traditional cigarettes.
Nothing is burned, as it is by tobacco smoking. The liquid mixture is vaporised and the vapour is therefore free of the harmful compounds created by burning. This absence of tobacco and the lack of burning, means that, in theory, vaping is far safer than cigarette smoking. One of the main e-liquid ingredients, polyethylene glycol, is used in many consumer products besides vaping kit.
A study published in 2013 on the medical journal Tobacco Control actually found that dangerous chemicals in e-cig vapour were of a level some nine to 450 times lower than those found in traditional cigarette smoke.
However, here in the UK, government scientists have yet to establish exactly how long-term vapers will be affected by the practice, since vaping itself is so recent a trend.
The NHS says on its website: “Electronic cigarettes also aren’t currently regulated as medicines so you can’t be sure of their ingredients or how much nicotine they contain – whatever it says on the label. Plans have been announced to regulate electronic cigarettes from 2016, but until this happens, they are only covered by general product safety legislation.
“While e-cigarettes may be safer than conventional cigarettes, we don’t yet know the long-term effects of vaping on the body. There are clinical trials in progress to test the quality, safety and effectiveness of e-cigarettes, but until these are complete, the government can’t give any advice on them or recommend their use.”