The question of 'are electronic cigarettes harmful?' is one that has only surfaced relatively recently; after all electronic cigarettes don't involve inhaling anything as nasty as the noxious fumes of traditional cigarette tobacco smoke. The ingredients that make up the e-liquid found in the cartridges of e-cigarettes seem pretty innocuous - glycerine, flavourings, and of course, nicotine. But it seems that the authorities, and their sponsors in the tobacco and anti-smoking industries have finally woken up to the fact that e-cigarettes are changing the rules of the game.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the US has stirred up much of this concern, with its preliminary testing, and halting of imports of e-cigarettes this summer. By labelling the 5 e-cigs it tested as containing 'harmful substances’, the FDA has stoked up fears of 'are electronic cigarettes harmful?' This would be quite legitimate, if they hadn't omitted to mention that the levels of dangerous substances found (cancer-causing nitrosamines) actually match the trace levels found in licensed medicinal nicotine inhalers - which are presumed safe.
So what's the catch? Why stoke consumers to ask 'are electronic cigarettes harmful' after years of safe use across the world? In part, it's probably just a natural tendency to be seen to be cautious after having been caught out on a product innovation. It may also be because electronic cigarettes would come under the umbrella of 'medicinal drugs' and so open the market to pharmaceutical companies.
But there is also a hint of outrage in the air from some in the anti-smoking lobby, that there might be a product out there that smokers would be happy to use. They don't want to see smokers finding a safe way to use their recreational drug of choice - nicotine. So they've pulled the 'are electronic cigarettes harmful' chestnut out of the bag.
So do these claims that provoke the question, are electronic cigarettes harmful, stand up to any reasoned analysis? Well the first thing to say is that they haven't been the subject of enough long-term controlled studies on use and certainly not long enough to tick the boxes of the regulators. And it's also true that, in one instance, the FDA did find a serious problem - the inclusion of a small amount of anti-freeze in one brand of e-cig. But this implies a need for better regulation and testing of the manufacturers, not the wholesale classification of e-cigs as 'drug devices'.
Others have queried whether there is a problem with second-hand vapour, in the same way that there is a problem with second-hand tobacco smoke. But this vapour consists of propylene glycol or vegetable glycerine, both of which are perfectly safe in liquid or vapour forms. Similar to asthma inhalers or smoke machines found in clubs and pubs, most of the nicotine in the vapour is absorbed on the first inhalation, with only 0.1% left in the out breath. And this vapour dissipates much more readily than tobacco smoke particles do. So bystanders don't need to worry are electronic cigarettes harmful to them.
So all the evidence so far suggests that those posing the question 'are electronic cigarettes harmful,' have no need to fear. Ash in the UK have been quoted as saying the electronic cigarette is nothing short of a miracle as smokers need as many alternatives to the real dangers of tobacco smoke as they can; and the more attractive those alternatives are, the better.