Wicked Wizard Eliquid America’s vaping revolution: How suspicious should we really be of the e cigarette craze?
America’s vaping revolution: How suspicious should we really be of the e cigarette craze?
A new tobacco alternative has taken the country by storm. But how safe is it, really?
Credit: AP/Christophe Ena)
When the great comedian Bob Newhart performed his classic skit about Sir Walter Raleigh introducing tobacco to the civilized world, it brought to the fore just how ridiculous, viewed from a certain angle, civilization’s long-standing love affair with the cash crop is. In it, Newhart plays Raleigh’s old-world liaison, and incredulously lists the supposed uses for the leafy import:
You can chew it … or put it in a pipe … or you can shred it up … and put it in a piece of paper. And roll it up. Don’t tell me, Walt, don’t tell me. You stick it in your ear, right?!
It is pretty ridiculous when you think about the act of smoking a cigarette. Is it any odder, then, that the future of smoking appears to entail sticking a battery in your mouth that glows blue when you suck on it?
Humans have been inhaling smoke, voluntarily, for longer than you might think. In the Americas, shamans ground and rolled tobacco and hallucinogenic herbs since around 5,000 B.C., according to archaeological evidence in Peru and Ecuador. Cannabis was smoked in India, and is mentioned in ancient literature, like the Atharvaveda (written circa 1,200 B.C.). The Maya smoked as far back as the 10th century A.D. And, according to legend, the Aztec goddess Cihuacoatl was actually made of tobacco. A 16th century illuminated codex shows Aztec ladies with tobacco smoking tubes, which may make the Aztecs and Maya the originators of roll-your-owns, though we’ve thankfully set aside the human sacrifices in which tobacco once played a ritualistic role.
Europeans weren’t far behind. The fabled Oracle at Delphi was able to enter a trance, and thereby act as the mouthpiece for cryptic divine predictions, thanks to the Delphic shrine’s location over a fissure in the earth that released natural ethylene gas, which was trapped in a trough in the temple floor, to be released when a vision was called for — a sort of proto-bong. And the father of history, Herodotus, reports that the Scythians “howled with pleasure” when they inhaled fumes from burning hemp seeds. (Try that, Colorado!)
But it was not until the Conquistadors brought tobacco back to Europe as a cash crop that social smoking became common. From the 16th century on, pipe smoking and coffee shops (another new luxury imported from the New World) were quickly adapted as popular leisure activities among all ranks and classes. The Frenchman Jean Nicot first brought tobacco to France in 1560 (and his surname gave us the term “nicotine”). And, as per Bob Newhart’s comedy routine, Sir Walter Raleigh was credited with bringing both potatoes and tobacco to 16th century England. (Although history has shown that both were present before his return from Roanoke, Virginia.) The dashing figure he cut did, however, do much to promote tobacco among the dandies of the time.
From the ancient civilizations of the Andes to Elizabethan England, smoking has now morphed into a new digital revolution. Handwritten letters have been replaced by email, newspapers by tablet editions; and now, it seems, cigarettes, cigars, pipes and hookahs may give way to their e-equivalent.
Welcome to the world of electronic cigarettes, already a surprisingly large industry, considering that the technology is only a few years old. In the U.K., the number of e cigarette smokers jumped from 700,000 in 2012 to 2.1 million in 2013. In 2014, Americans spent $2.2 billion on e cigarettes — still a fraction of the $85 billion annual sales of tobacco products, but a good chunk of change nonetheless. First conceived and patented by American Herbert A. Gilbert in 1963, as a “smokeless, non-tobacco cigarette” that “replaced burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air,” the product we now think of as an “electronic cigarette” was invented by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik as recently as 2003. E cigarettes incorporate a battery, a cartridge containing liquid nicotine, and a vaporizer that uses the battery’s energy to turn the liquid into vapor for you to inhale.
Electronic cigarettes, not being a tobacco product, are generally regulated in a different and far lighter way than traditional tobacco-based smokes. This is where debate has raged. Are they safer than real cigarettes? Are they a gateway for youngsters, drawn to the digital cool and easy taste of e cigarettes, to later turn to real smoking? E cigarettes are so new that they have hardly been studied. At first glance they seem a winning alternative with numerous advantages. But just last week a new study suggests that they may be far darker than they first claimed.
Proponents tout three ostensible advantages to e cigarettes over the real thing: 1) You can smoke them anywhere, even indoors, even under a blanket without setting the house on fire; 2) they cost less than normal cigarettes in the long run — around half as much; and 3) they won’t kill you. Let’s consider each of these claims, and whether e cigarettes are really as rosy as they seem.
1) You can smoke them anywhere.
Pro: You can indeed smoke e cigs anywhere, bothering no one and without fear of stinking. However, quite a few cities have recently banned what has become known as “vaping” (as in, inhaling vapors) through no concrete scientific evidence that it is bad for secondhand inhalers, and despite the fact that there is no scent, noxious or otherwise, released. Americans, in particular, have just swung so far away from the ’70s, smoking-is-cool vibe, that it seems that such bans are based on principle, not on problems.
Con: Until it is scientifically proven that secondhand e cigarette smoke causes health issues, then you can, indeed, smoke them anywhere — at the discretion of the location in question. The World Health Organization released a warning this August that recommended governments prohibit the sale of e cigarettes to minors and to ban their smoking in indoor spaces. France followed this advice, but other countries have yet to do so.
2) They cost less than normal cigarettes in the long run.
Pro: This is indeed the case: E cigarettes cost about half as much as buying tobacco cigarette packs. A single vapor cartridge, which is roughly equivalent to one pack in terms of number of puffs (about 300), averages around $1.60, while a pack of real cigarettes is upward of $4 and can be over $7, depending on state tax.