E-cigarettes are becoming more popular. The battery-powered tubes that produce flavored, nicotine-laced vapor have millions of users world-wide and are generating billions of dollars in sales — so much that tobacco companies are getting into the business. One of the users is Russell, who has turned to e-cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco.
What’s up with these devices? I’m surprised to find that, in the United States, there’s little regulation of the marketing or sale of e-cigarettes at the federal level, and there’s not much in the way of data about their health effects. In some states, for example, e-cigarettes can be sold to minors and some of the candy-oriented flavors and marketing techniques seem geared toward luring young people into a nicotine habit. No one seems quite sure, either, about the health effects of inhaling the mixture of nicotine, flavoring, and propylene glycol — a common additive that is used products like salad dressing and soft drinks. Eating propylene glycol has been studied, but inhaling its heated vapor in combination with nicotine apparently is a wild card.
For me, the big question is whether e-cigarettes are a gateway or an exit. Restrictions on sales to minors and marketing and product schemes designed to entice them seem like sensible steps, and of course we need to determine whether e-cigarettes can cause significant health problems. I’d also be interested in studying exactly who uses the devices, and for what purpose. If e-cigarettes are being used by tobacco smokers as a means of ratcheting down their addictive habit on the way to quitting entirely — as I’m hoping is the case with Russell — I’m all in favor of making them available for that purpose.