Better than regular cigarettes? Health experts are unsure about health risks associated with e-cigarettes.   *iStock photo
Better than regular cigarettes? Health experts are unsure about health risks associated with e-cigarettes. *iStock photo

One of the last acts of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was to sign a bill banning the indoor use of e-cigarettes in that city. But electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are booming worldwide.

Sales are in the billions and growing — and tobacco giants are being drawn into their manufacture. But with the growth in sales has come increased public health scrutiny. Many health organizations are sceptical that e-cigs are as harmless as the manufacturers want you to believe.

Bermuda’s tobacco rules don’t currently account for the products, and you might have seen islanders using them.

Danny McDonald

summarizes what you need to know. 

What are e-cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated devices that emit nicotine (or non-nicotine) vapours without all the tar that is associated with cigarettes.

A legitimate alternative to smoking?

Well, that’s what the manufacturers maintain. Public health officials, however, aren’t sold.

Are they bad for your health?
That is debatable. The e-cigarette companies say the devices do not expose the user to harmful levels of cancer causing chemicals. In 2009 the US Food and Drug Administration tested two brands of e-cigarettes and found carcinogens and other harmful chemicals in more than half the samples, including traces of diethylene glycol, a substance most commonly found in anti-freeze. Other health studies have found no substantial health effects. 

So there’s no consensus?

The American Lung Association points out that inhaling nicotine without inhaling tar is uncharted territory. 

Some doctors speculate there is at least the potential for harm. Others are more strident, saying that the e-cigarette is selling nothing more than nicotine addiction. They also question how much safer they are than real cigarettes.

How do they actually work?

In most models, once a user sucks on the device, a sensor activates a heater, which then vaporizes a flavoured liquid solution. Users can choose whether or not to have nicotine in the solution. The nicotine is usually dissolved in propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, both of which are considered to be common food additives. 

How much does this cost?

The devices themselves can cost between $30 and $50 in the US, with liquid vapour refills costing about $10.

Do they help people quit smoking?
Researchers in New Zealand say yes, e-cigarettes are at least as effective as nicotine patches.  Other health officials fear the device is a gateway to normal cigarettes for impressionable youths.

When and how were they introduced to the market?

A Chinese company, Golden Dragon Holdings, began selling them in China in 2004.  They started exporting the following year and hit the US in 2007.

How are sales?

Booming. Global sales topped $2 billion last year. That could soar to $10 billion worldwide by 2017, depending on regulation. Philip Morris — the makers of Marlboro — plan to unveil its e-cigarette this year, while British American Tobacco (BAT) have already gone to market with their product.
How are they regulated?

Governments are scrambling to assess the health risks. An important ruling in France could set an international precedent. A French court found that the e-cigarette, despite its lack of tobacco, should be considered a tobacco product. Therefore it could be sold to those retailers who are licensed to sell tobacco products. 

In the UK, e-cigarettes are regulated like medicines.

Sources: Reuters, NY Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Medical News Today