Healthy or harmful? The hard facts behind the E-cigarette boom

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Making the switch? Get the facts first

Healthy or harmful? The hard facts behind the E-cigarette boom
Many smokers switched to e-cigarettes to quit smoking traditional cigarettes. (Beba73/iStock/Getty Images)

I would consider it a stepping stone to complete cessation of smoking, but being a nicotine addict is still being an addict.

— Dr. Robert Kominiarek, family GP

For more than 50 years, Frank Sparks has been a smoker. Sparks, now 64, said he was 62 when he knew it was time to quit. “I couldn't run down the street without losing my breath,” Sparks said. Within three days of discovering e-cigarettes, Sparks stopped smoking traditional cigarettes and hasn't sparked one up since. Although e-cigarettes are not marketed as a smoking cessation product, the battery-operated vapour technology has gained acceptance by both smokers and non-smokers. As the popularity of this tobacco-less option continues to rise, so does the controversy regarding whether it is healthy or harmful.

Introduction to e-smoking

Electronic cigarettes come in many shapes and sizes. Modelled to mimic the form and function of a tobacco-filled cigarette, most e-cigarettes contain a battery that heats up the sensor and a tank for nicotine and flavour-filled cartridges.

The electronic nicotine delivery system, powered by a rechargeable battery, works by heating a liquid into vapour, which is inhaled into the lungs.

According to Nick Molina, CEO of International Vapor Group -- parent company of South Beach Smoke -- users exhale a water vapour that does not contain either smoke or tobacco. “It gives the same type of sensations as a traditional cigarette and provides the oral fix,” he said.

Customers of South Beach Smoke can obtain the refillable vapours online and choose from a variety of flavours, Molina said.

Finding the right flavour is key, Sparks said. “When I started using e-cigarettes two years ago, there were limited flavours,” he said. “I started with tobacco flavours and eventually tried some others.”

Healthy or harmful?

It’s difficult to call e-cigarettes healthy, but many supporters say they are a healthier alternative to tobacco.

This technology is fairly new and studies have not consistently confirmed or denied health benefits. A recent study by Dr. Igor Burstyn, however, led to the conclusion that chemicals in electronic cigarettes pose minimal health risks for users and bystanders. The study, funded by the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Research Fund, reported that the amounts of propylene glycol and glycerine -- the main chemicals in e-cigarette cartridges -- were far below a dangerous level.

Molina asserts that e-cigarettes do not have the 4,000-plus chemicals found in traditional cigarettes. “In addition, there’s no combustion, no tar, no smell and a reduced occurrence of yellowing teeth,” he said. “Those around you are not exposed to second-hand smoke like traditional cigarettes.”

Dr. Sophie J. Balk, a paediatrician, noted that just as with regular cigarettes, users of e-cigarettes can become addicted to them.

“They don’t contain the thousands of toxic chemicals traditional cigarettes contain -- many of which are thought to cause cancer,” Balk said, but she added, “It’s the nicotine in cigarettes and e-cigs that is highly addictive.”

A potential stepping stone

Although he does not cite any health benefits of e-cigarettes, Dr. Robert Kominiarek, said that e-cigarettes could be a great aid to addicts who wish to quit smoking. He said it is not yet clear, however, whether e-cigarettes are as effective as nicotine patches and nicotine gum to help with smoking cessation.

“I do have patients that have quit conventional cigarettes. Synthetic nicotine cartridges in e-cigarettes have the advantage of satisfying the craving as well as giving people something to do with their hands, which is an evident component of smoking addiction,” Kominiarek said. “In my opinion, anything that may help someone stop smoking is worth trying out. I would consider it a stepping stone to the complete cessation of smoking, but being a nicotine addict is still being an addict.”

Sparks, who has now been using e-cigarettes for two years, said he has been “vaping” to reduce his nicotine intake. “When I first started, I was at the highest level of nicotine intake after smoking for 54 years,” he said. “I am now down to a 0.06 daily nicotine intake. E-cigs helped me reduce my daily nicotine intake significantly.”

Sparks can attest to the benefits of switching. “I'm older now and my breathing has improved 100 per cent,” he said. “I still enjoy the ritual of smoking -- hand to mouth -- so this option is 100 per cent safer for me.”

Molina has heard similar from numerous customers of South Beach Smoke. “Many consumers look into e-cigs as an alternative to quitting smoking on their own, with a high level of success,” he said. “They are no longer smoking traditional cigarettes. Our motto is: 'If you can’t quit, switch.'"

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