E-Cigarettes, What’s the Verdict?

Curious minds like to ask a lot of questions.  What causes the weather to happen?  Why is China’s stock depreciating? – etc, etc.  About a month ago I asked something quite similar.  What the heck is e-juice? More importantly, what crumby marketing sod is giggling right now at the potential of its use as an innuendo?   I’m only hating because I didn’t do it first…trust me.

Jealousy aside, this line of inquiry naturally led me to the much bigger question: “are these e-cigarettes really that much better than their tobacco based counterparts?”

Thank goodness it’s seedless watermelon. I hate seeds in my e-juice. Skeet is okay though.

A bunch of doctors and public health experts from the aptly named “Public Health England” sought to answer the same question.  The result? A 113 page study concluding that e-cigs are indeed 95% less harmful to your health than regular cigarettes.

For those of you fluent in statistics, or linguistics in general,  this of course raises even more questions such as: Am I 95% less likely to die?  Do I live, like, 95% longer?  Do I have 99 problems but 5% of them isn’t lung cancer?  You have to admit it’s pretty oddly worded.  Before diving into this nuance, I feel it’s only appropriate to hop into…

The Background

Despite the notion that e-cigs are invented by some really smart Harvard stoner in his basement (much like every invention is) these actually came from a country with a huge air quality epidemic.  China.   It is estimated that 4000 people per day die from air pollution, and it really isn’t hard to see why.  The country consumes 1/3 of the world’s tobacco, and its smoking population is estimated to be 350 million back in 2010.    Heck, it wasn’t until 2009 that they held doctors responsible for not smoking in healthcare facilities. This of course pissed them off to no end considering that 60% of doctors were smokers at the time.

E-cigs were purportedly first sold by the Ruyan company back in 2004, and in four years sold 300,000 units.   Their construction is remarkably simple.  Honestly, it wouldn’t even surprise me if in 2030 Bob the Builder was teaching you how to assemble your first ‘MOD’ (modified e-cigs) instead of a suspension bridge for the clay based town he resides in.

“Heating element goes here kids! Just don’t burn your fingers off!”

The e-juice that you blast into your mouth *hehe* is made of 3 distinct compounds.  Propylene glycol, Nicotine, and Flavoring.  P-glycol is a thick, viscous substance that is really good at absorbing water.  It’s used in foods, cosmetics, and movie smoke and is considered generally safe by the FDA.  Nicotine, is, whelp.  Nicotine.  If you don’t know what this is you probably should have asked for your parent’s permission before reading this.  The idea is that you take this cocktail, heat it with a metal wire to produce vapor and inhale it.  Simple.

This leaves us with the most controversial component of the mixture, the flavoring.  The hallowed KFC has a secret recipe of 11 herb and spices for their fried chicken.  I get that.  It’s herb and spices.  However, e-juice companies also have a blend of secret … uh… stuff?   We’ve now arrived at the crux of why scientists feel its so important to have this regulated.

The Science-ish

Remember how you had those jolly rancher hard candies with a bunch of different fruit flavors?  As a kid, you never really questioned why those flavors tasted nothing like their fruit counterparts.  No, all you cared about was beating that one other kid in class at handball because he or she had cool parents that got them the new Pokémon game before your parents did.  So you popped those corn syrup treats in your mouth to give you the edge in trying to blast the other kid in physical competition for the whole school yard to see.  Or you were playing Pokémon already.

Things got awkward when Timmy tried to compensate for not having a Gameboy

Nowadays, our millennial cohort has grown slightly wiser and likes to question, quite literally, everything.  However, believe it or not, the modern creation of flavorings is really quite simple once you have the technology.

A book called ‘Food Flavorings’, published in 1991, had the clearest description of the process, so I went with that.  If you took Organic Chemistry 2, you’d know that each chemical compound can be identified via Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Mass Spec, or the more affordable Gas Chromatography.  Basically these mega food labs have access to all three of these bad boys.

Did you know that your smell or taste is simply the result of a bunch of cells (olfactory and gustatory respectively) deciphering the ratio of chemicals you ingest into brain signals?   I bet you did.  You make Bill Nye proud.  In any case, these food chemists can essentially take any food and expose it to one of the machines mentioned above to get an idea of what the food is made of or how exactly its composed.   This serves as the blueprint which they can use to reverse engineer a bunch of chemicals to match the blueprint’s likeness.

Imagine you have a blueberry, you take a small piece of it and isolate the compound associated with its taste (drown it in alcohol and scrounge what’s left), or you at least try your best to because nature is awfully good at keeping things together.  The sensitive equipment spits out a compound looking like this [ABBC].   You then take every imaginable chemistry technique known to (wo)mankind [trying to be PC here, its 2015],  and make a compound eerie similar to it and easily mass produced.  The compound you make looks more like this [ABbC].  Close enough, right?  Even though they’re almost identical as a whole, our tongues and noses are quite good a differentiating even these minute differences.  This is why your watermelon lollipop doesn’t ever actually taste like watermelon.

The Backlash

Now in America, this process is very commonplace, and thus is regulated by the FDA as a food additive.  Food additives are generally taken very seriously, albeit very politically as well.  They also regulate tobacco, and indirectly, nicotine.  But e-cigs?  Well, they have this self-made organization called the American E-Liquid Manufacturing Standards Association.  An organization that’s so new in its creation, it still uses a slipshod service like wordpress to host its website.  I mean, come on, who the heck does that nowadays?  Pshh.

Hey, its free okay?!

But to be fair, they’re a NGO out to do some good.  You see, despite not knowing the full profile of flavoring chemicals, there are some usual suspects that cross over from the food industry.  Diacetyl, for one, is responsible for the ‘buttery’ flavor, but also causes lung disease.  And 2,3-Pentanedione, responsible for Bronchiolitis Obliterans .

These are just the known chemicals too, so you can imagine why its so important to have oversight on them.  Let’s look back at the Public Health England report I mentioned earlier.   Actually, you don’t really have to, because I’m just going to outright tell you what’s wrong.  No flavorings.  They have about 20 some odd pages dedicated to nicotine and glycerol alone, but none to flavorings.  Unsurprising considering the search terms they used were typically “e-cigarettes”, on top of the little literature there is on e-cig flavorings directly.

Sheesh, get a SEO already you scrubs.

The Verdict

You’ve probably heard the argument that there are over 4000 chemicals in a cigarette with 69 of them being carcinogenic.  That’s typically the go-to statistic people cite when comparing safety of e-cigarettes and cigarettes.  By that account alone, sure, you’re not inhaling 4000 additional chemicals and that’s great.

But what critics fire back with is the fact that its ease of use and low cost make it an easy and attractive option for teens, and thus a greater risk of new nicotine addicts.    Even Time magazine tossed their hat in and reported that e-cigs really don’t do anything to curb addiction despite being marketed as a method of quitting.

Oh, and that “95% less harmful than cigarettes”?  Debunked by an article published in The Lancet.  Here I’ll just let the authors explain: “Based on the opinions of this group, cigarettes were ranked as the most harmful nicotine product with a score of 99·6. E-cigarettes were estimated to have only 4% of the maximum relative harm. It is this result that yields the “95% less harmful” figure reported last week.”

So it really was just an arbitrary measurement of harm based off of whatever the authors that Public Health England hired felt like was harmful.   Ah but wait, the authors were also cited by this same counter-article to be partly reimbursed by both tabacco and e-cigarette money.

To be fair, tobacco companies only paid for the publication fees and not necessarily the studies used for the data, and the authors deliberately chose to have third party editors rifle through their paper before publication.  However, it just goes to show that you cannot let your health boil down to a single statistic.

Overall, choose what you want.  E-cigs and their juice certainly cut down the list of chemicals used, if you’re willing to accept a few unknowns.  Me?  I’m still busy thinking of ways to use ‘e-juice’ as a naughty double entendre at the next mixer I’m invited to.  Fingers crossed it’s the Catalina Wine Mixer.

Hell yeah it is
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