Radioactive Fertilizer: The

Smoking cigarettes causes cancer

In a staff report on your site about whether nonsmoking actors use fake cigarettes when playing a part, the writer said there’s no such thing as noncarcinogenic smoke, implying smoke is the primary danger. What about the new electronic cigarettes—since they’re smokeless, are they noncarcinogenic? —Amit Anand

Well, that’s the theory. Browsing online, we find claims like this: “[Our] premier lineup of smokeless electronic cigarettes utilizes innovative technology to provide a smoking experience without the dangers, hassle and even expense of traditional cigarettes.” Here one recalls the miracle drug diacetylmorphine, introduced in 1898 as a nonaddictive alternative to morphine by Bayer. Diacetylmorphine is better known by its trade name, Heroin. You see how well that worked out.

Like traditional smokes, electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are a nicotine delivery device. The difference is that whereas the paper-and-weed variety involves burning tobacco and inhaling the smoke, e-cigarettes merely heat nicotine to produce vapor, and you breathe that—hence the term “vaping.”

An e-cigarette consists of a mouthpiece, battery, some electronics, a filament-type heater, and disposable cartridge containing nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerin, and flavorings. When the electronics detect that the smoker has taken a drag, they switch on the heating element, warming air that’s pulled through the cartridge and vaporizing some of the nicotine mix for easy inhaling. Many e-cigarettes are designed to mimic the tobacco kind, often with a colored LED tip that glows.

These things clearly have their advantages. The absence of combustion means no combustion byproducts—including tars, carbon monoxide, and other noxious chemicals—and also no risk of fires and burns. Those in the user’s vicinity don’t choke on tobacco smoke, although if you sit too close you can still get a snootful of secondhand vapor.

Relatively little research has been done on e-cigarettes since their appearance on the market roughly six years ago. However, while it would be foolish to say they’re harmless, studies so far suggest they’re orders of magnitude safer than conventional cigarettes.

In investigating e-cigs, the FDA has focused on two types of chemicals: tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs), which are carcinogenic, and diethylene glycol (DEG), a plain old poison. E-cigarettes were found to provide a 500- to 1400-fold reduction in TSNAs compared to traditional cigarettes, and DEG was found in only one cartridge tested. Of 16 studies reviewed in 2010, none found more than trace amounts of the carcinogens typical of tobacco smoke in either the nicotine solution or the vapor thereof. Nonetheless, since there’s no minimum safe level of a carcinogen, the FDA still warns against e-cigarettes.

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