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August 11, 2008
Volume 86, Number 32
p. 56

Electronic cigarettes—a digital way to light up

Addiction, it seems, has gone electric.

Allow me to introduce you to the e-cigarette. These battery-powered gizmos sound like a ridiculous party gag, and as a matter of fact they are. But they also deliver users a serious portion of vaporized nicotine that is supposed to sate even the most demanding of smokers. As Der Spiegel reports—with a healthy puff of irony and caution—e-cigarettes could be “Smoking 2.0.”

Sarah Everts/C&EN
Electronic cigarette: a battery-powered addiction.

In particular, these gadgets sidestep the 4,000-plus chemicals present in standard cigarette smoke that plume into one’s lungs from the burning of tobacco and tar. This allows e-cigarette smokers to avoid the 50 or so cancer-causing components of normal cigarettes. Not surprisingly, e-cigarette companies make grandiose statements about the health benefits of their wares.

E-cigarettes work like this: Nicotine is dissolved in propylene glycol, and the combination is stored in a cartridge that is designed to look like a traditional orange cigarette filter. The nicotine cartridge screws onto the main body of the e-cigarette, which contains a rechargeable battery that powers an electrical circuit. When the smoker inhales, a sensor in the circuit is activated. This causes a red-light-emitting diode at the tip to turn on. More importantly, the nicotine and propylene glycol are heated up so that they vaporize and get sucked into the smoker’s lungs.

Propylene glycol—found in shampoo, food coloring and onstage theater smoke—is used as a solvent because plain water vapor is invisible. Vaporized propylene glycol looks like smoke, adding to the pseudo-smoking experience without causing a stinky smell. Most users say that e-cigarette smoke tastes sweeter than a normal cigarette, possibly because the nicotine cartridges come in fruit, mint, and even coffee flavors.

The first electronic cigarette, called Ruyan, was invented in China in 2004 by the Hong Kong-based Golden Dragon Group. But dozens of companies sell newer, similarly designed electronic cigarettes, and even e-cigars and e-pipes, online. If YouTube is any metric, e-cigarettes are catching on: Videos of users giving smoking demos abound.

Proponents and e-cigarette makers point out that because an e-cigarette doesn’t release tobacco smoke, one can get a nicotine fix in restaurants or even airplanes. For example, a reporter from U.K.’s Channel Five News tried smoking an e-cigarette in an organic food store. When she blew the odorless smoke at “some organic cakes, nobody said anything.” It’s not surprising: The gadgets seem more like a toy than anything else.

Even though e-cigarettes aren’t dumping tobacco carcinogens into your lungs, nicotine itself is not innocuous. It speeds across the blood-brain barrier in just a few seconds, is highly addictive, can raise blood pressure, and hurts developing fetuses.

A New Zealand pharmacologist, Murray Laugesen, who was hired by Ruyan’s makers to do some chemical testing on the e-cigarettes, told Newscripts that, “the amount of nicotine per puff is half that of a tobacco cigarette.”

Regulators around the world are just starting to react to the e-cigarettes: According to CNN, Ruyan is being assessed by Food & Drug Administration regulators. Last July, the French Ministry of Health released a general public warning about e-cigarettes. They are worried that an e-cigarette’s propylene glycol could be an irritant, and they warn that the solvent can also cause neurological symptoms similar to inebriation. Meanwhile, German regulators are worried about trace amounts of formaldehyde. But are all these worse than the myriad carcinogens present in cigarette smoke?

On the surface, e-cigarettes may seem less harmful than normal cigarettes and they are a good source of comic relief. But it’s time some serious scientific evaluations informed the regulation of these nicotine-dispensing devices.

This week's column was written by Sarah Everts. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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