There’s been a lot of buzz since the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to regulate e-cigarettes. But what are these devices? And how do they work, and what are their potential health implications? We’ll take an in-depth look at your next vape. 

First, it helps to understand how they got here. E-cigarettes were invented by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik in 2003. He was inspired by attempts to quit smoking with pharmaceutical nicotine gums. Like Nicorette gum, which works on the same principle as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), e-cigarettes use a nicotine delivery system that temporarily replaces the craving for cigarettes. 

In the United States, e-cigarette products are currently regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). The FDA has not yet determined whether e-cigarettes should be classified as tobacco products – or as drugs. So we don’t know exactly what the future holds. However, a recent CDC study shows that more than one million Americans have tried e-cigarettes. Some people believe that e-cigarettes could help smokers to quit. Others think they’re just another way to get hooked on nicotine. Let’s take a closer look at how they work, and explore some of the major health concerns related to them. 

How do e-cigarettes work? 

The typical e-cigarette consists of three parts: an atomizer, battery pack, and cartridge containing nicotine liquid. The atomizer is attached to a mouthpiece that sits inside the cartridge. When you inhale, air hits the atomizer, causing a small charge to build up between two metal plates. This causes a tiny bit of liquid to vaporize. You can also adjust the amount of vapor by turning the atomizer. Then you exhale through the mouthpiece. 

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The cartridges contain liquid nicotine solutions. There are many different brands available, including unflavored nicotine liquids and flavored ones. Flavored liquids include bubble gum, cotton candy, fruit, licorice, mint, and others. 

Because e-cigarettes deliver nicotine using a heating element instead of combustion, they aren’t technically “smokeless” like traditional cigarettes. Instead, they’re called “vaping.” The act of vaping is similar to smoking, but without the smoke. Vapers often describe the sensation as “smoking without the smoke.” They also say that e-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes because they produce fewer carcinogenic chemicals. 

Why are e-cigarettes so controversial? 

But there are still plenty of unanswered questions about e-cigarettes. For example, why do some people prefer vaping over other forms of nicotine intake? And what happens when you inhale too much e-liquid? It may seem harmless enough to puff a little on every now and then, but overuse could potentially cause serious health problems. 

Some researchers worry that e-cigarettes will become a new form of addiction. In fact, the National Institute of Health reports that some vapers use e-cigarettes as a substitute for quitting smoking. That means e-cigarettes could become addictive. And if you already struggle with addiction, this could make matters worse. 

Then there’s the issue of vapor quality. Because e-cigarettes heat the nicotine rather than burning it, some experts fear that e-cigarettes could release toxic compounds into the environment. According to the American Lung Association, they also emit ultrafine particles that are linked to respiratory diseases. 

What are e-cigarettes made of? 

The components of a typical e-cigarette are mostly plastic. The battery contains lithium ion cells. These cells are typically composed of nickel, copper, iron, cobalt, manganese, zinc, and cadmium. They generate electricity when they’re charged with a charger. When used, they power a coil inside the atomizer. This heats up the e-liquid, which produces the vapor. 

What are the hazards of e-cigarettes? 

Some studies suggest that e-cigarettes could pose similar health risks to conventional cigarettes. A 2013 study conducted in France found that users had similar levels of carbon monoxide as cigarette smokers. The same year, a Spanish study reported that heavy e-cigarette users had higher amounts of blood carboxyhemoglobin (COHb) than nonusers. COHb is a marker of exposure to car exhaust fumes. And a 2014 Danish study found that both smokers and vapers who switched from conventional to electronic cigarettes experienced increased blood pressure. 

So far, no evidence exists to show that e-cigarettes are safe or effective for helping people quit smoking. And there haven’t been any long term studies to determine whether e-cigarettes are even better than NRT or patches for helping people quit. 

And lastly… 

It’s important to note that e-cigarettes are still relatively new. As such, we don’t fully understand how they work. And until more research is done, it’s unclear how much safer they might actually be compared to conventional cigarettes. 

For now, it seems best to wait for the science before you decide whether e-cigarettes are something worth trying. And if you’ve already started vaping, talk to your doctor first. Your primary care physician can advise you on whether e-cigarettes are right for you. And if he or she thinks that you need to stop vaping, a medical professional can provide support while you try to quit.