DEBATE Since their emergence around five years ago, the rapid expansion of e-cigarettes has provoked controversy, and challenged the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries alike, writes Simon Brooke
Do you “vape”? Are any of your friends “vapers”? Your answer to these two questions is probably “no”, but that situation might well change over the next few years. “Vaping,” that’s the use of electronic cigarettes, is growing fast.
According to the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association, the sales of these small electronic devices which give users a nicotine hit, but are unaffected by the smoking ban, are rising by up to 30 per cent a month. Such rapid expansion has caught tobacco companies, pharmaceutical groups, retailers and especially the regulators off guard.
This rise comes at a time when, despite the efforts of health campaigners including the NHS, the numbers quitting smoking have begun to level out following decades-long smoking reductions.
Much of the debate has focused on nicotine which is highly addictive. In 1980, a memo by a senior scientist at the cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris stated: “I believe the thing we sell most is nicotine.”
It takes about seven seconds from the time nicotine enters the lungs for it to start affecting the brain, stimulating the release of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter that influences mood. Depending on your temperament, when it hits your brain, nicotine can either make you feel relaxed or stimulated.
According to a review by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency “nicotine, while addictive, is actually a very safe drug”. So the e-cigarette lobby argues, like the Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) makers, that it’s nicotine that keeps smokers hooked, while it’s the combustion of tobacco in a cigarette, with its tar and 4,000 or so other dangerous chemicals, that is actually killing them.
E-cigarettes, claim their makers, provide smokers with a healthier way of getting that nicotine fix as opposed to NRT, which aims to wean them off it in a clinical manner, ignoring the holistic appeal of smoking as an experience.
Unlike NRT devices, e-cigarettes can look like or at least simulate conventional cigarettes. The user mimics the act of smoking and the e-cigarette produces vapour on inhalation instead of smoke. It’s this vapour that provides the nicotine hit. All the smoker has to give up is the harmful burning of tobacco.
E-cigarettes, say the growing band of small companies that make them, can also be fun.
New technology enables users to customise vapour production, flavour and throat hit. Bigger battery devices last longer between charges, and work with liquid refillable tanks and cartridges to introduce a whole world of new flavours. Depending on your personal preference or your mood, you could, for instance, opt for flue-cured tobacco, absinthe, French vanilla or blueberry pancakes.
There are still many unanswered questions about e-cigarettes, though. Whereas the practice of smoking tobacco through cigarettes and pipes is hundreds of years old and its effects on the human body have been studied in detail for over half a century, there is less than five years’ data available for e-cigarettes.
There is the question, for instance, of the effect on the lungs and the respiratory systems of e-cigarettes. In many cases users who have complained of problems have also been cigarette smokers for many years before taking up the electronic variety. As a result, isolating the impact of their more recent e-smoking habit on their health is even more difficult.
So, whether you’re a smoker looking to quit, an early adopter looking for an alternative to tobacco smoking or simply someone who wants to understand what that person in the pub next to you or sitting in the café in front of you, drawing on an electric device is up to, it’s time to learn more and join the debate.