Photo by Jay Paul
If you've been in a bar lately, you've probably seen someone smoking, or "vaping," an electronic cigarette. If you've been on Broad or Cary streets, you may have noticed the opening of RVA Vapes and Avail Vapor, respectively, two of a growing number of merchants specializing in electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes. And if you watch TV, you may have been surprised to see ads for smoking (or at least something that looks like it), given that the marketing of cigarettes on television and radio has long been banned.
The sudden increase in the visibility of e-cigarettes urges two basic questions: What are they, and are they less harmful to individual and public health than tobacco cigarettes?
An e-cigarette essentially consists of a battery and a heating element that vaporizes a liquid, or "juice," which contains water, a base of either propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, flavorings and usually (but not always) nicotine, which is usually (but not always) extracted from tobacco. (It is for this reason that e-cigarettes are legally defined by the federal Food and Drug Administration as a tobacco product.)
Notably, an e-cigarette contains no actual tobacco and involves no combustion, which is why many claim that vaping is less harmful than smoking conventional cigarettes.
The problem is that, at least for now, there isn't enough scientific evidence to determine the safety of e-cigarettes. Thomas Eissenberg, a specialist in research on nicotine and smoking cessation at Virginia Commonwealth University, says he's "very surprised … to see so many people, including people from the scientific community, who are willing to state their opinions about the potential health benefits [of e-cigarettes] when we don't have any facts to back that up."
For RVA Vapes co-owner Chip Anderson, who says his biggest goal is "to create a safe, quality product," the facts are simple: e-cigarettes take "everything that's bad about what you're fighting against out of the equation," he says, referring to those advocating against tobacco use. "If you want people to stop smoking — especially second-hand smoke inhalation — then why are you fighting [e-cigarettes]?"
Last fall, VCU received one of 14 federal grants to conduct research that will ensure that U.S. tobacco regulatory actions and activities are based on sound scientific evidence. With this five-year, $18.1 million grant, Eissenberg and his colleague, Robert Balster, have created VCU's Center for the Study of Tobacco Products. Its goal is to develop a model for the evaluation of "modified risk tobacco products," as designated by the Tobacco Control Act of 2009.
Eissenberg points out that while it's true that vaping does not expose the "vaper" to the thousands of toxicants that exist in cigarette smoke, "it is not true that we know that long-term inhalation of — just to take one compound — propylene glycol is safe." Propylene glycol is "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA, but, as its Office of Media Affairs explains, this determination "is for particular uses of propylene glycol in food," and "does not apply to other uses."
In the meantime, many municipalities and states are using the existing tobacco regulatory framework to limit the sale and use of e-cigarettes, particularly with a view to preventing children from picking up a nicotine habit. Richard Foster, public affairs manager for the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth (and a Richmond magazine contributor), says his organization is "very concerned that e-cigarettes could normalize the behavior of smoking after so many decades of progress."
In light of this and similar concerns, the marketing of e-cigarettes has come under increased scrutiny. Last November, three ranking members of the Congressional Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to the FDA arguing that some manufacturers are using celebrities, sex, promotions and cartoon imagery in their ads, just as Big Tobacco previously had done.
E-cigarettes' youth appeal is enhanced by both the myriad flavors of "juice" and their "gadget" nature. Given that, according to the FDA, "virtually all new users of tobacco products are under 18," it remains unclear whether this ostensible alternative to tobacco will become a boon to public health or a gateway to its use.