E-Cigarettes, Explained

Making the Switch? Get the Facts First

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Many smokers have made the switch to e-cigarettes to quit smoking traditional cigarettes.
Many smokers have made the switch to e-cigarettes to quit smoking traditional cigarettes. (Image: MilknCoffee/iStock/Getty Images)

For more than 50 years, Frank Sparks smoked traditional cigarettes. Sparks, now 64, said he was 62 when he knew it was time to quit. “I couldn’t run down the block without losing my breath,” Sparks said.

Within three days of stumbling upon e-cigarettes, Sparks -- a former Navy SEAL and a resident of California -- stopped smoking traditional cigarettes and hasn’t sparked one up since.

Although e-cigarettes are not marketed as a smoking cessation product, the battery-operated vapor technology has gained acceptance by smokers and non-smokers alike. As the popularity of this smokeless option continues to rise, so does the controversy regarding whether it is healthy or harmful.

I would consider it a potential stepping stone tool to the complete cessation of smoking, but being a nicotine addict is still being an addict.

Dr. Robert Kominiarek, family physician in Springboro, Ohio

The 411 on E-Cigarettes

Electronic cigarettes come in many forms and sizes. Modeled to mimic the form and function of a traditional tobacco-filled cigarette, most e-cigarettes contain a battery that heats up the sensor and a tank for nicotine and flavor-filled cartridges.

The electronic nicotine delivery system, powered by a rechargeable battery, works by heating a liquid into vapor, which is inhaled into the lungs.

According to Nick Molina, CEO of International Vapor Group -- parent company of South Beach Smoke -- users exhale a water vapor that contains 0 percent smoke and 0 percent tobacco. “It gives the same type of sensations as a traditional cigarette and provides the oral fix,” he said.

Customers of South Beach Smoke can obtain the refillable vapors online and choose from a variety of flavors, Molina said.

Finding the right flavor is key, Sparks said. “When I started using e-cigarettes two years ago, there were limited flavors,” he said. “I started with tobacco flavors and eventually tried some others.”

Healthy or Harmful?

It’s difficult to call e-cigarettes healthy, but many supporters say they are healthier than traditional cigarettes.

Technology is fairly new and studies have not consistently confirmed or denied health benefits. A recent study by Dr. Igor Burstyn of Drexel University, however, led to the conclusion that chemicals in electronic cigarettes pose minimal health risks for users and bystanders. The study, funded by the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Research Fund, reported that the amounts of propylene glycol and glycerin -- the main chemicals in e-cigarette cartridges -- were far below a dangerous level.

Molina asserts that e-cigarettes do not have the 4,000-plus chemicals you find in traditional cigarettes. “In addition, there’s no fire, no tar, no smell and less occurrence of yellowing teeth,” he said. “Those around you are not exposed to second-hand smoke like traditional cigarettes.”

Dr. Sophie J. Balk, attending pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, noted that just as with regular cigarettes, users of e-cigarettes can become hooked on them.

“They don’t contain thousands of other toxic chemicals -- many of them cancer causing -- found in regular cigarettes,” Balk said, but she added, “It’s the nicotine in cigarettes and e-cigs that is highly addictive.”

A Potential Stepping Stone

Although he does not cite any health benefits of e-cigarettes, Dr. Robert Kominiarek, a family physician in Springboro, Ohio, said that e-cigarettes have the potential to help a person who wishes to quit traditional cigarettes. He said it is not yet clear, however, whether e-cigarettes are as effective as nicotine patches and nicotine gum to help with smoking cessation.

“I do have patients that have quit conventional cigarettes to get their synthetic nicotine fix. They have the advantage of satisfying the nicotine craving as well as giving people something to do with their hands, which is a definite component of smoking addiction,” Kominiarek said. “In my opinion, anything that may help someone stop smoking is worth a try. I would consider it a potential stepping stone tool to the complete cessation of smoking, but being a nicotine addict is still being an addict.”

Sparks, who has now used e-cigarettes for two years, said he has been “vaping” to reduce his nicotine intake. “When I first started, I was at the highest level of nicotine after smoking for 54 years,” he said. “I am now down to 0.06 nicotine intake. E-cigs took my nicotine intake down significantly.”

Sparks can attest to the benefits of making the switch. “I’m older now and my breathing has improved 100 percent,” he said. “I still like the ritual of smoking -- hand to mouth -- so this option is 100 percent safer for me.”

Molina has heard this testimonial from numerous customers of South Beach Smoke. “A lot of consumers do look to e-cigs as an alternative to quitting smoking with a high level of success,” he said. “They are no longer smoking traditional cigarettes. Our motto is: 'If you can’t quit, switch.' ”

E-Cigarettes: Is It a Cost-Effective Alternative?

As the tax on tobacco continues to increase, many consumers are paying $12 to $13 a pack for traditional cigarettes, says Nick Molina, CEO of International Vapor Group, parent company of South Beach Smoke.

In some instances, users of e-cigarettes can save more than 50 percent when making the switch from traditional cigarettes.

“Our cartridges are $2 to $3 each, which is equivalent to a pack and a half of traditional cigarettes,” said Molina. When buying in bulk, refillable vapors cost approximately $30, equivalent to a carton of traditional cigarettes.

Users, though, must evaluate the start-up costs when making the switch to e-cigarettes. The upfront investment ranges from $60 to $75 for an e-cigarette case, said Molina. “The long-term savings are undisputed,” he said.

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