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Electronic cigarettes (also known as e-cigarettes or personal vaporizers) are an alternative to tobacco cigarettes. They are battery-operated devices that create an inhalable, water-based mist instead of smoke. The rechargeable battery powers a heating element called an “atomizer.” The element uses low heat to turn liquid in the cartridge, which contains propylene glycol, glycerin, food flavoring and nicotine, into a fog-like mist.
There are many models of e-cigarettes available. Some look like traditional cigarettes, others look similar to a pen and some even look like small flashlights. Some have LED lights, some have built-in liquid reservoirs, others have combined atomizer cartridges, some are tubular and some are even rectangular boxes. They come in all shapes and sizes and have different features for former smokers who wish to distance themselves from anything resembling a traditional cigarette or want a longer battery life and/or better performance.
While anything containing nicotine cannot be called 100% safe, evidence from numerous studies strongly suggests that they are magnitudes safer than tobacco cigarettes. Harm reduction experts can point to research supporting that switching from cigarettes to a smokefree product will reduce health risks to less than 1% of smoking traditional cigarettes – nearly the same as non-smokers. For tobacco harm reduction health professionals, it is misleading and irresponsible for public health officials to tell smokers that smokeless products, such as e-cigarettes, are “not a safe alternative to smoking” simply because they are “only” 99% safer and not 100% safe.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence and even some scientific research surveys that strongly indicate that e-cigarettes are an effective alternative to smoking. Surveys show that up to 80% of e-cigarette users quit smoking traditional cigarettes while using e-cigarettes.
However, while some users have gradually reduced the nicotine levels down to zero, the majority of e-cigarette users treat the devices as an alternate source of nicotine and not as a nicotine cessation program. So there is not as much scientific evidence yet that show how effective e-cigarettes are when used to treat or cure nicotine addiction. Yet, anecdotal reports by users who have used e-cigarettes as a way to wean from nicotine also indicates they seem to be very effective way to break smoking triggers and dramatically reduce nicotine levels. As with pharmaceutical NRTs, it depends upon the smoker and the strength of his or her addiction and resolve to quit. E-cigarettes also appear to be a much safer option for short-term use in the event of relapse.
The good news is, nicotine by itself has very low health risks, so switching to e-cigarettes can be nearly as good as quitting altogether. The most important thing for those who cannot or will not quit nicotine to do is to stop the exposure to the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke and e-cigarettes can help them do it.