The March 23-29, 2013 issue of The Economist has two reports on a novel method of taking in nicotine, the addictive compound found in tobacco. In its business section in page 66, it discusses the recent invention called electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes for short, and how this new invention may soon take over, perhaps even replace, current paper cigarettes that we light up and smoke. An e-cigarette is not to be lit up with a match or a lighter, smoked and inhaled. Instead, it contains an ‘atomizer’ which vapourises (more correctly, makes a fine aerosol spray or mist of) a solution of nicotine, which the user inhales smokelessly. In other words, he ‘vapes’, not smokes. Page 66 talks about the plus and minus points of e-cigarettes, what policies various governments, health care agencies, airlines and others have and so on — all in all a reasonably balanced column.
But on page 18 in the leader’s column, the journal argues in favour of e-cigarettes and why they should be welcomed and not be controlled or banned by ‘politicians and other busybodies,’ further noting that ‘some researchers reckon nicotine to be no more dangerous than caffeine (in coffee)’.
What in the world is an electronic cigarette? Why should it even have been invented, and why (and how) will people use it in place of the usual cigarette sticks? Let us look at the history of the use of nicotine. For centuries, people have been smoking tobacco and inhaling nicotine (besides taking it in by chewing or through snuff). This has taken the form of hookahs, pipes and rolled leaves or paper containing tobacco, burning it and inhaling the smoke. It became convenient and a worldwide addiction thanks to companies that started manufacturing pre-made cigarette sticks and went on an advertising blitz.
It was only when this move started that cigarette smoking became popular worldwide; it even became a fashion statement, and many youth (alas, me too) fell for it. By the 1960s, it was estimated that about 500 million worldwide were hooked on branded cigarettes.
Health warnings were of course constantly put out. As early as 1929, the German scientist Fritz Licknit had already established the connection between smoking and lung cancer. And health researchers in the U.S. continuously warned the public of the hazards of smoking. It was only when Dr. C. Everett Koop, the then U.S. Surgeon General, campaigned against smoking with such missionary zeal that the public began to take it seriously and public places (restaurants, planes, trains and buses, conference halls, movie theatres) banned smoking. The campaign was so effective that several States in the U.S. sued cigarette companies for hiding information (or denying and manipulating it) about the hazards of smoking, and came up with huge financial settlements. India has not been far behind, and has sensible laws and policies to ban and control tobacco use.
It is not just the addiction, not even nicotine alone. Lighting up and burning leads to smoke. And the smoke is a health hazard. It produces carbon monoxide (CO), a blood poison, nitrogen oxides (which can destroy molecules in the body), and the tar produced during incomplete burning (it is the tar which is the major cancer-culprit). Smoke is not only bad for the user, but also for the bystander- through what is called secondary smoking. Thus, over the decades, public health scored over and made a dent in the cigarette industry and the number of smokers has begun to drop.
Manufacturers are no dummies, they had to think up new ways. And thus they have come up with e-cigarettes. In an electronic cigarette, you do not light up and produce smoke. You do not even use tobacco. You take nicotine (the addictive), dissolve it in glycols (which are acceptable to the human body) and using an electronic method, produce an aerosol mist and inhale the vapour. No smoke, no CO, no nitrous mix, no tar, no cancer (I’d say not so fast on this last item yet).
The e-cigarette even looks like the conventional paper cigarette stick. It has three parts — a cartridge which holds both the nicotine solution and a mouthpiece, an atomizer set up which produces the vapour, and a battery to help this plus a tip which is lit electronically (to look and feel like the lit up end of a paper cigarette). Those interested may go on the internet, accesswww.vcig.com, and look at a YouTube video showing the various parts of an e-cigarette, how they are put together, packaged into an e-cigarette pack and used. And the company claims: “No ash, no tar, no bad smell, no pollution, no CO, no yellow teeth...”
So what is wrong? Why should e-cigarettes not be sold, even promoted? They are better than the nicotine patch or gum; and they can help smokers quit. As an e-cigarette company advertises: ‘cigarettes, you have met your match’.
What are the down sides? They may become the next fashion statement and hook more into nicotine addiction, and even become ‘the gateway to the real thing’, and with tempting flavours, may entice children.
More than anything else, they would be the new ‘dope peddlers’, just as the opium traders of earlier centuries. And I wonder how soon it will be before e-cigarettes capture the Indian market.
E-cigarettes, though better than nicotine patches or gum, have their downside