by Clayton Noblit
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, have exploded in popularity since they first hit the shelves in 2007. Marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes, these devices are largely unregulated and researchers say they may not be any safer. Clayton Noblit reports.
Alec Tolentino, a first-year at UNC, started using e-cigarettes during his senior year in high school. He says a friend first showed him the device, which looks like a mix between a black ballpoint pen and a penny whistle.
“He kinda got us all like kinda hooked on it,” said Tolentino. “So basically what you do is you take the chamber. There are like basically two parts to an e-cig.”
Tolentino unscrews the e-cigarette in the middle, and explains how the nicotine infused fluid is turned into vapor.
“So you hold, and you draw. There are little air holes here to help suck it through.”
The now over two billion dollar e-cigarette industry has been booming. Tolentino says one reason he uses them is he thinks they are not as bad for him as regular cigarettes.
“From what I’ve read, there’s not all that like gross like carcinogens and stuff in an e-cig,” said Tolentino. “Like it’s cleaner. It doesn’t stink up the room. It smells like skittles and pineapple express.”
The belief that vaping does not pose a health risk may have contributed to the rise of e-cigarettes. A belief that the American Heart Association doesn’t hold.
Kurt Ribisl, a professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, researches the sales and marketing of tobacco products. Ribisl is part of an international team of experts compiled by the American Heart Association to take a look at how healthy vaping really is.
“While the products have lower levels of most harmful constituents than cigarettes do, they still do pose some potential hazards,” said Ribisl.
Ribisl says that one potential hazard of vaping occurs before the juice is even vaporized.
“Nicotine is a very potent poison and so there are a number of concerns based on calls to poison centers where children have actually tried to drink or pour the liquid on themselves,” said Ribisl. “That’s absolutely a potential danger that needs to be addressed.”
One way e-cigarettes are being used is to help smokers wean themselves off of nicotine.
R.J. Crumpler, an employee at the Hazmat Smoke Shop in Chapel Hill, says he sees many customers like this.
“There’s a lot of people using it to quit smoking, which is the biggest thing. And then you know other people that were smokers or they might be light smokers and they’re looking for an alternative,” said Crumpler.
This potential benefit of e-cigarettes is reflected by the AHA paper, which says that physicians can support patients using this method if they have tried all other alternatives. Though Ribisl says more research is needed, he is already skeptical about this use of the devices.
“There was a study showing that the quit rate between people who use e-cigarettes and use the patch were not different from each other,” said Ribisl. “So in other words, people had about the same quit rate using an e-cigarette as using an FDA approved medication.”
The Food and Drug Administration plans to impose regulations on e-cigarettes, but for now, the industry is regulated on a local level. Some areas, including Washington D.C., allow the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. North Carolina is not among them. The AHA wants regulations similar to those on tobacco products, as well as taxes to deter minors. A plan that would probably work according to Tolentino, who says price is a big draw.
“This is so much cheaper. These I think are like ten bucks and they will last you like weeks, these little juice packets. As opposed to spending like eight dollars per pack of cigarettes,” said Tolentino.
Tolentino may soon find himself shelling out more money to fill his e-cig, and it might not taste as good either. Remember those candy-like flavors he mentioned? The AHA wants those regulated, too.