Harm Of Electronic Cigarettes Is Overstated

From The Houstonian by Brent Leith

“If everyone switched to electronic cigarettes, this would be the greatest health advance probably since vaccinations,” drugs researcher David Nutt said in an interview with BBC Radio last month.

NORML Kats will remember Nutt as the former UK drugs advisor who made headlines in 2009 for challenging the country’s classification of marijuana and other recreational drugs. Nutt’s claims were based on the observed harmfulness of the drugs in question. He argued that the government’s pursuit of drug offenders and regulation of drugs caused more harm than the drugs themselves. He was sacked for his conviction, but went on to form an independent drugs advisory group with like-minded colleagues.

Nutt’s recent advocacy of electronic cigarettes comes from this same conviction, and it’s an approach to discussing electronic cigarettes we should consider in the United States. Almost half a million people die each year in the United States from smoking-related illnesses, while the total public and private cost of treating smoking-related illnesses tops $130 billion annually. If increased electronic cigarette usage can put a dent in either of these numbers, how can their spread be so controversial?

The electronic cigarette controversy played out in New York City last December when a citywide indoor ban was issued, placing them under the same restrictions as tobacco cigarettes. A citizens’ forum preceded the ban and was shown live on the city hall website. The forum produced what could almost be called a consensus on the subject. Droves of angry opponents proclaimed electronic cigarettes equivalent to their combustible counterparts, despite evidence to the contrary. The city council even entertained a speech against electronic cigarettes by a precocious pre-teen, who crudely demonstrated their equivalence to tobacco cigarettes by admitting to the council that he didn’t understand the difference.

If the debate in New York City seemed lopsided, it was only because the proponents were even more lacking. The gallery was populated with hipsters producing billowing clouds of electronic cigarette vapor in the hopes of infuriating the naysayers (it worked). Malcontents took the podium to whine about personal choice and the violation of individual rights. Few brought up health benefits. Fewer still challenged claims that the chemical vapor is as harmful as tobacco smoke.

The New York ban was possible because the only evidence submitted was baseless conjecture and opinion. There are things we know to be true of electronic cigarettes that positively and substantially differentiate them from tobacco cigarettes. The most important to consider is their composition.

Electronic cigarette liquid is composed of four basic components. Propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin are mixed in a variable ratio as the base of the solution. These chemicals are considered non-toxic, though there is one product of the breakdown of propylene glycol in the body that is still under study. A small amount of pure nicotine, which aside from its addictive properties is considered to be as marginally harmful as normal caffeine consumption, is added to produce the desired effect….