Health Department: The truth about electronic cigarettes

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 7, 2016

By Ian Powers

Rowan County Health Department

Are electronic cigarettes a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes? This has been a heavily debated topic ever since electronic cigarettes emergence in the U.S. markets in 2007. With that being said, much is still unknown about the effects these devices have on peoples’ health due to them being around for only a short amount of time. What we do know, though, is with electronic cigarettes accumulating over $3.5 billion in annual sales, people in America have hopped on the electronic cigarette train and don’t look like they’ll be getting off anytime soon.

Electronic cigarettes, also commonly known as e-cigs, vape pipes and hookah pens are battery powered devices that allow users to electronically inhale a vapor or aerosol that contains nicotine. E-cigs are considered a tobacco product in North Carolina (based on North Carolina youth access law) because they contain nicotine that is derived from tobacco.

Nicotine, which was once used as an insecticide, is a chemical substance that is responsible for the addictive properties of tobacco. Some even compare the addictive properties to those in heroin or cocaine, and according to the National Institute of Health may lead the brain to become addicted to other harmful substances. It is known that nicotine in very small, usually less than 1mg, regulated doses, itself poses very few health risks. But nicotine in larger unregulated doses can cause poisoning, which could even lead to death. It has also been linked to birth defects in children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy. Since e-cigs are largely unregulated by the FDA, users are unaware of exactly how much nicotine they are taking in, which could result in dire consequences. Also, nicotine use in teens may harm brain development leading to a wide array of problems later in life.

Electronic cigarettes come in many shapes, sizes, and even flavors. Since these electronic cigarette cartridges allow the user to administer their own flavor in the chamber, it opens up a window for users to fill them with other, sometimes illegal, substances, thus creating a new way to for drugs users to administer to themselves.

The flavors that these companies offer consist of appealing tastes such as pineapple, maple berry donut, s’mores and numerous other flavors that often children would find tasty. Users even have the chance to create their own flavors. This deceptive advertising has made it look as if these products are safe since they mimic these comfort foods. But we know that no form of tobacco is safe for our bodies.

The emergence of these tasty flavors has a strong appeal, especially to younger kids. This has led to a dramatic increase in the amount of kids who use e-cigs, and studies have shown that you are 8.3 times more likely to use traditional cigarettes if you begin by using an e-cig. This has caused many different states to enact laws banning the sale of flavored e-liquids to diminish the impact that they have on youth. One of the reasons for e-cigs having such an impact on youth is not only because of clever advertising, but the brain of a child or adolescent is still very much undeveloped. This leaves the chance open for that kid to become addicted very easily, condemning them to a life-long addiction to nicotine.

Although there is very little information on the long-term health effects of electronic cigarettes, they contain many potentially harmful properties. First some e-cig flavorings can lead to lung irritation or other serious problems. For example diacetyl, a butter flavored chemical, is linked to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, a life-threatening lung disease. Also, some contain propylene glycol, which when heated can turn into formaldehyde, which is known to be linked to asthma and cancer. If e-cigs don’t already sound unappealing, it has been found that they can also contain chemicals like lead, cadmium, nickel, and tin. According to Carlene Crawford, a North Carolina regional tobacco control manager, chemicals in electronic cigarettes have been known to disrupt brain circuit formation in adolescents.

In addition to containing many chemicals, the device itself can pose a potential health threat. These devices, since largely unregulated, can cause the user to inhale pieces of metal that have broken off from the device, which could lead to different health concerns. Also, more recently these devices have been known to blow up or explode on the user. These users don’t even need to be actively using the device for it to happen, as was the case for a man at a drug store whose electronic cigarette device blew up in his pocket igniting him on fire. This fire hazard is why the airlines prohibit e-cigs in carry-on and checked baggage. So the claim that e-cigs are safe, since they don’t burn tobacco or produce tar, are largely unsubstantiated.

Another reason users turn to e-cigs is to help them quit traditional cigarettes. But in reality this diminishes the chance for a smoker to quit, and they are not an approved aid to stop smoking. This just causes a person to switch from being addicted to one harmful substance to another. E-cigs also lead to relapses in former smokers. The bottom line is that these products contain chemicals and are not as safe as clean air. The secondhand smoke or secondhand aerosol emitted from e-cigs contains metals and nicotine particles, which can be harmful to pregnant women and young children.

To answer the question if electronic cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes, the reality is we don’t exactly know at this point due to having insufficient long-term data. But there is a reason that the FDA is now beginning to regulate these products. There’s a reason for other communities beginning to pass and enforce laws against the sale and use of e-cigs, including e-cigs in smoke-free polices. Maybe its time Rowan County follows in their footsteps and does the same.

Do you or anyone you know need help quitting? Contact the North Carolina Quit Line at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669), or visit their website at

Ian Powers is an intern at the Rowan County Health Department.