Last word on the e-cigarette

The first time I heard about the e-cigarette, I though it was something you can send to your friends on Facebook – for those that don't know, in the Facebook community we send each other coffee, mojito's, margaritas and even hugs and kisses all in cyberspace. So you can see how I came to this conclusion.

In fact, the electronic, or e-cigarette, is exactly what the name suggests – a cigarette that works with electricity. The unit, which looks just like a cigarette (a long white part where the tobacco goes and a short yellow filter), is actually a cleverly packed rechargeable battery, atomiser and cartridge. And what's more, the tip even glows red when you drag on it.

Instead of tobacco, it uses a liquid nicotine solution which the atomiser, driven by the rechargeable battery, turns into vapour. The nicotine "hit" is delivered by inhaling the vapour which, incidentally, also looks like cigarette smoke and even creates the same sensation as inhaling cigarette smoke.

Better in theory
In theory the e-cigarette is a healthier option than smoking regular tobacco cigarettes. Although it still contains nicotine, which has various known health risk factors (actually there is a nicotine-free option, but really, what's the point?!), it doesn't involve the burning of tobacco, therefore you aren't exposed to any carcinogens - which are the real culprits responsible for cancer and whatnot.

It is also said that it doesn't release harmful secondary smoke, so theoretically it is safe to smoke around others. Another pro is that it doesn't smell as bad, so your breath, hands, car and living space are much fresher.

Science is lacking
But before you rush out to buy an e-ciggy, let's look at what the science says. The product has not undergone any rigorous scientific testing, and as yet it is not known whether it's safe for humans.

The big question about its safety lies in the liquid solution (propylene glycol) through which the nicotine is delivered. According to manufacturers of the Ruyan e-cigarette, propylene glycol makes up 89% to 90% of the liquid in the nicotine cartridges that generate the mist and vapour in the e-cigarette ‘smoke’.

Propylene glycol is actually a common chemical used in medicines, and food – mainly as a preservative, but also as a solvent and humectant. The mist or fog derived from it (which is also the form used by the e-cigarette) is used in "smoke machines" in theatre production, or in dance clubs.

But the main point is, as found in a study by Health New Zealand Ltd, is that propylene glycol is virtually non-toxic.

Obviously that doesn't prove it to be safe. There is the remaining 10% to 11% of the compound that holds nicotine (with known dangers to humans), flavourants and colourants. These are said to be the same flavourants and colourants as those used in food production, but the truth is that this is such a new product, that there is no standard or regulation ensuring what goes into it.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also highlighted its concerns about it. WHO issued a statement last year warning that there was no evidence to back up contentions that e-cigarettes are a safe substitute for smoking, or a way to help smokers quit. It also said companies should stop marketing them that way, especially since the product may undermine smoking prevention efforts because they look like the real thing and may lure non-smokers, including children.

We tried the e-cigarette
Health24 got its hand on one of these e-cigarettes and tried it out for a month. Here's our verdict: The e-cigarette is a super cool gadget, and I promise you'll be the envy of all your smoker friends if you get one. Especially when you tell them that you smoke it at your desk in the office, in no-smoking sections in restaurants and non-smoker friends' cars.

When you talk about the e-cigarette, people automatically assume it's a method to quit smoking. It has not been scientifically proven to help with smoke cessation, and in my own experience it wasn't very effective for this purpose either. It does satisfy a person's nicotine cravings to an extent, but is a far cry from the real thing. The main reason for this is the taste, which is very pleasant and sweet, but nothing like an actual cigarette. And although in some respects it simulates the act of smoking, there is a lot of ritual and habit, such as lighting up and smoking a cigarette to down to its end (and that smoke after a meal), that it doesn't live up to.

Anecdotally I do think that it could aid in smoke cessation, much like the nicotine patches or chewing gum that help control your nicotine cravings while you're giving up smoking.

Expert opinion
Professor Martin Vellar, head of surgery at the University of the Witwatersrand believes the electronic cigarette could be a valuable aid in smoking cessation. "It could be used as a nicotine replacement, and there is a lot of data indicating that it [nicotine replacement] helps to stop smoking," says Vellar.

He suggests that exchanging regular cigarettes for the e-cigarette would have many health benefits, and says that he has witnessed the success of the e-cigarette in both smoking cessation and improved health outcomes. – (Wilma Stassen/Health24, May 2009)

The distributers of Twisp kindly sponsored the e-cigarette for this project.

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