E-cigarettes have been growing in popularity since they were introduced to American consumers about a decade ago — and they now make up a $2.8 billion industry.
With the long-term effects of e-cigs still unclear, should they be considered a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes?
Consumer Reports recently spoke to medical experts and reviewed more than 50 different scientific studies, in an effort to keep consumers informed about the benefits and potential health risks of e-cigs.
How e-cigs work
According to Consumer Reports, ‘A typical battery-operated e-cigarette contains a cartridge of e-cig liquid, or ‘juice,’ which usually contains nicotine and the chemical propylene glycol.’ E-cigs also come in a variety of flavors. The way an e-cig works is the battery operates an atomizer that vaporizes the liquid for the user to inhale.
While the basics are typically consistent, the ingredients in different types of e-cigs can vary, which is part of the reason why the Food and Drug Administration, responsible for regulating conventional cigarettes, has encouraged tighter regulations for the e-cig industry.
The juice inside an e-cig is what contains nicotine — with the amounts varying from zero to 72 milligrams per milliliter of liquid — depending on the product. A traditional cigarette has about 10 to 15 milligrams of nicotine.
“Nicotine has short-term negative health effects, like increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, so it can aggravate heart conditions,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. “It also interferes with fetal development, making it unsafe in pregnancy regardless of its source.”
Read more: How much money quitting smoking can save you
Public Health England recently published a review that found e-cigs to be 95% less harmful than conventional cigarettes. Most chemicals that cause smoking-related diseases are not found in the electronic versions.
But even though e-cigs don’t cause the same problems as regular cigarettes, that doesn’t mean they don’t have concerning health issues of their own.
According to a recent study released by the Center for Environmental Health, ‘the majority of 97 e-cigarettes and other ‘vaping’ products tested produce high levels of the cancer-causing chemicals formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.’
The chemicals are formed when the liquids in e-cigs are heated. Formaldehyde is a chemical linked to nose and eye irritation, and an increased risk of asthma and cancer.
According to Consumer Reports, e-cig vapor can also contain lead, cadmium, nickel, tin, and other metals, which can lead to a variety of health issues, including nervous system or respiratory problems. Some of the flavoring chemicals can also be toxic.
But since e-cigs don’t burn tobacco like regular cigarettes, they don’t produce tar — which can clog a user’s lungs — or carbon monoxide, which is linked to heart disease.
Concerns for young people
According to Consumer Reports, one concern about e-cigs is the fact that larger doses of nicotine can be more harmful, especially to children.
Since January of this year, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has received more than 2,000 reports of incidents involving children and e-cigs, including many in which children drank the e-cig juice or spilled it on their skin.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published earlier this year found e-cigarettes have become the most-used ‘tobacco product’ among high schoolers, and almost half of all middle and high school students who smoked one type of tobacco product used multiple types.
A report released by Wallet Hub found that smoking regular cigarettes costs the average smoker between $1 million and $2 million over a lifetime.
According to NerdWallet, the average pack-a-day smoker spends about $2,600 a year on cigarettes. The cost of e-cigs is about half that.
When it comes to your health and your wallet, e-cigs are the better choice.
To better understand all the health concerns related to e-cigs, experts say a lot more research needs be done. While e-cigs do have health concerns of their own, experts say vaping is definitely a healthier alternative to smoking regular cigarettes. But with that said, experts don’t recommend it. One of the biggest problems with e-cigs is that vaping can lead a non-smoker to become a smoker.
“If a patient switches from smoking two packs a day to only using e-cigs, it’s not as good as quitting, but it’s undeniably better,” says Douglas Kamerow, M.D., M.P.H., a former assistant surgeon general and a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University. “But if a nonsmoker starts vaping and gets hooked on nicotine, especially if it leads to tobacco smoking, that’s a problem.”