Electronic Cigarettes: Smoke and Mirrors?

At the last few industry events that I’ve attended the big news has been the introduction of electronic cigarettes and the related question of whether this is going to be the next big thing for the convenience store industry.In case you are not familiar with them, electronic cigarettes are “nicotine delivery mechanisms”.  They typically are small tubes, some of them in the shape of a traditional cigarette, that contain a small vial of nicotine concentrate and water.  When the user inhales on the tube an electronic device heats the nicotine liquid into a vapor and the smoker (actually they are called “Vapers”) inhales the nicotine laced steam.  All that is emitted from the e-cigarette is a water vapor.  Some of the e-cigs are reusable and rechargeable with the ability to add new nicotine containers and others are disposable after two or three hundred puffs/vapes.

Proponents of the e-cigs say that there are several advantages to the electronic version over the traditional “combustible” version.  The first is that e-cigs are healthier than traditional cigarettes because the dangerous, cancer causing aspects of old cigarettes is due to the inhaling of the carcinogens created by the burning of the tobacco.  Nicotine, itself, is not a carcinogenic and, therefore, doesn’t cause cancer.  They don’t refute that nicotine is addictive – that is why many smokers have the urge to smoke – but that e-cigs are a safer way for people to feed their nicotine addiction.  They also claim that it will help people stop smoking by allowing them to reduce the amount of nicotine that they are consuming – similar to a nicotine patch.

The second advantage is that there is no passive smoking issue since the e-cig gives off water vapor and not carcinogenic smoke.  Therefore, their reasoning goes, e-cigs should be allowed in non-smoking areas such as buildings, restaurants and planes because it doesn’t have an adverse affect on bystanders.

The third advantage of e-cigarettes is that they are supposed to be fire safe.  Since there is no combustion there is no chance of starting a fire.

Because of all of the above, e-cig proponents say that e-cigs should not be regulated the same way as traditional cigarettes.  The restrictions on advertising and promotions don’t apply because they don’t do the same harm as conventional smokes.  They seem to agree that age restrictions should stay in place.

Opponents of the e-cigs have voiced the following points.   First, nicotine is addictive and that any device promoting nicotine is negative.  Second, that e-cigs are actually a gateway for teenage smoking.  Because e-cigs seem cool, teenagers are using them and they will gradually move up to traditional cigarettes and all of the public health issues that entails.  Finally, they say that the actual effects and consequences of e-cigs are unknown.  They point out that e-cigs have been around for such a short amount of time no one really knows what the short or long term health affects will be for those who use them.

So – electronic cigarettes: hot new category or electronic evil?  At the moment, they are legal to sell in the US and are not regulated.  The European Union has been going back and forth on the regulation issues and, at the moment, seems to be starting to put forth rules to regulate e-cigs the same as traditional ones.

My personal opinion is that we need to wait and find out more about the products.  I’m anti-smoking although I think adults have the right to choose to do so or not.  We sell them in our stores.  If e-cigs can provide all of the advantages that its proponents claim along with the nicotine high that users crave then I am in favor of selling them.  However, I feel that it is too soon to know and understand the downsides of the product.  We are now in an age of hyper-sensitivity to health effects (can you imagine someone introducing a “combustible” cigarette today?) and in an hyper-litigation society.  More studies need to be provided by neutral researchers.

The US government needs to get out in front of this issue and decide how to handle it. They need to brush aside the lobbying efforts on both sides and come up with a decision as whether e-cigs contain a health hazard.   If e-cigs are considered to be safe for public use then they need to set minimum standards for the e-cigs themselves so that consumers know that safe manufacturing specifications have been met.  Currently there are dozens of e-cigarettes on the market with many of them being imported from overseas.

If there is a legitimate way to help traditional smokers reduce their health risks then we need to go forward.