The taste of maple syrup vapor enfolds my tongue as I inhale. Then it’s fresh blueberries and the sweet taste of warm honeycombed waffles. I can’t resist trying my roommate’s blueberry waffle-flavored e-cigarette as he ponders his next move. Should he procure some wood or a sheep for his board-game farm? He puffs thoughtfully.
As I breathe in the irresistible sweetness of an imaginary breakfast, I feel like Violet in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” munching on gum that tastes like Thanksgiving dinner and waiting for my skin to turn a Technicolor blue and my torso to inflate into a blueberry.
Nothing happens. I feel a tad more alert, and my hands tremble the way they do after a cup of coffee, fingers dancing to inaudible music. I’m only slightly disappointed I won’t be rolling around the house as a blue balloon.
The question is, are e-cigarettes really a better alternative to cigarettes? It turns out, it’s how we define “better.”
The most obvious advantage, leveraged as a marketing ploy, is that e-cigarettes can be a form of harm reduction. That is, it could minimize the negative health consequences associated with a behavior. One example of harm reduction is from the local nonprofit Needle Exchange, which provides clean needles to injection-drug users to curb risks of disease transmission from needle-sharing and infection and scarring from needle reuse.
For someone smoking a pack a day, vaping nicotine without tar and the numerous other additives in cigarettes might be a good thing. E-cigarettes, however, attract people who might never have considered smoking cigarettes in the first place.
Even worse, there is inconclusive research on the long-term health risks and consequences of prolonged e-cigarette use. Furthermore, the flavor additives and colors are unregulated, which means there’s a good chance that whatever’s making the nicotine taste like rainbow sherbet (another one of my roommate’s favorites) are synthetic chemicals that might be detrimental for my health.
One thing we do know is that nicotine is a neurotoxin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gets hundreds of calls every month reporting liquid nicotine poisonings, roughly half from children 5 and under, most of whom mistake it for candy. If it looks, smells and tastes like candy, what else are small children to think? The other half are adults who spill the liquid while refilling e-cigarette cartridges. Although these are not the nicotine’s intended uses, because it is a concentrated liquid, the body absorbs it rapidly, even through the skin, inducing nausea and vomiting within minutes.
For smokers, there are numerous advantages: People can legally smoke e-cigarettes almost everywhere, although a growing number of major cities are banning them in places where smoking is illegal. Just yesterday, Philadelphia joined New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in enacting e-cigarette bans. Another draw is that the smell doesn’t linger the way cigarette smoke does. Then there’s the cost: Buying nicotine in bulk is cheaper than buying cigarettes.
The variety of flavors also proves enticing for the legions of loyal e-cigarette users, known as “vapers.” By law, regular cigarettes cannot be flavored, and the FDA is considering tightening regulations on menthol cigarettes, following the European Union’s lead — the EU banned menthol cigarettes October last year. They’ve found that menthol cigarettes aren’t more toxic than regular cigarettes, but the flavor makes it easier to smoke more of it and to get addicted. In fact, half of all young smokers use menthol cigarettes.
Flavored nicotine poses the exact same risks. Health advocates worry that the hundreds of varieties of flavors appeal to youth and pose an inviting introduction to the joys and perils of nicotine use — and abuse. Thirty-eight states to date prohibit the sale of e-cigarette products to minors. Their fears aren’t unfounded: I could easily have sat contentedly puffing away on blueberry waffles for an hour or more without considering how much nicotine I was inhaling.
The FDA proposed a rule in April that would categorize e-cigarettes as a tobacco product, allowing for federal regulation. The proposal, which will prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and from vending machines as well as requiring companies to disclose their ingredients, will likely take years to come into effect.
At the moment, most questions about e-cigarettes remain unanswered. How bad is secondhand vapor? Do e-cigarettes cause cancer? Tobacco companies are happy to keep things this way, while getting in on the action. If the interests of tobacco companies have always been at direct odds with the general populace’s health, why would they start caring now? E-cigarettes represent just another way for them to boost the bottom line.
Inconclusive research and lack of regulation means we might be hit with a wave of health problems as our vaping generation ages, much as the smokers of our grandparents’ generation met a tsunami of health complications they never imagined while puffing and chewing away as young adults.
How many times will history repeat itself before we realize there’s always a price tag for substance use, and especially addiction, and that our youth does not protect us from the possibility that we’re bankrupting our own health with fragrant clouds of milk and honey and pina colada vapor?