The setting is perfect for an evening meal at your favourite restaurant — then horror of horrors, a person at the next table pulls out what appears to be a cigarette, takes a drag, then exhales what seems to be a cloud of smoke.
The shine on the perfect evening suddenly dissipates in that smoke cloud; smoking in public places is against the law and harmful to the health of non-smokers and smokers alike.
But before you politely ask that person to butt out, consider this: it may not be a cigarette at all.
Electronic cigarettes, also known as smokeless cigarettes, e-cigarettes or e-cigs, are the latest thing since nicotine patches. And that cloud of smoke might actually be a harmless vapour.
The e-cigarette, a battery-powered device that converts a liquid into a mist or vapour, is being marketed as another means of kicking the tobacco habit.
But the jury is still out on what’s cooking in that vapour. Does it pose the same deadly consequences to the user — and to innocent bystanders through second-hand emissions?
Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed sweeping new rules that, for the first time, would extend its authority to electronic cigarettes. In the U.S., these popular nicotine-delivery devices have mushroomed into a multibillion-dollar-industry “with virtually no federal oversight or protections for American consumers,” the New York Times reported.
E-smoke is uncharted water and the FDA has chosen the course of better to be safe than sorry.
E-smokes are also under the watchful eye of Health Canada. While advocates of the high-tech puffers claim they are a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes, much like nicotine gum or patches, Health Canada cautions that not yet enough is known about the device.
Proponents say the e-cigs don’t produce lung-destroying tar and other poisons used to enhance the flavour of tobacco, negating the dangers of second-hand smoke.
In Canada, unlike the U.S., it’s illegal to sell these puffers using ingredients containing nicotine. However, the nicotine-laced “mist capsules” that fit many e-cigs are readily available from the U.S.
“To date, there is not sufficient evidence that the potential benefits of e-cigarettes in helping Canadians quit smoking outweigh the potential risks,” says Health Canada. It advises Canadians, especially youth, against the use of these products.
Industry analysts in the U.S. predict sales of the e-cig will outpace its US$85-billion tobacco industry within a decade. The FDA is understandably nervous about the projected windfall, insisting on quality control to weed out shady producers salivating over this new gold rush. “Perhaps the biggest proposed change (under new rules) would require U.S. producers of e-cigarettes to register with the FDA, provide the agency with a detailed accounting of their products’ ingredients and disclose their manufacturing processes and scientific data,” according to the Times. The new laws would also prohibit the sales of e-smokes to those under 18.
In Canada, the Nova Scotia government is itching to clamp down on e-cigs, which are showing up in schools because the devices are not illegal. Health Minister Leo Glavine is concerned about the contents of the cooked “juice” in the fake smokes that provide the mist. His government plans to charge ahead with its own legislation if Health Canada doesn’t step in; “… our legislation will bring e-cigarettes under the Smoking and Public Places Act” — comparable to the ban on smoking a regular tobacco product, says Glavine.
The dangers of second-hand smoke are the backbone to Canadawide bans on lighting up in public places.
The Canadian Lung Association says “Second-hand smoke has over 4,000 chemicals; many of them cause cancer.
Two-thirds of the smoke from a cigarette is not inhaled by the smoker, but enters the air around the smoker.”
The most potentially lethal ingredient is tar produced by tobacco that coats lung tissue. Not to mention other scary stuff in that cloud of smoke, including carbon monoxide, ammonia, cadmium, hydrogen cyanide and nitrogen dioxide.
“Regular exposure to second-hand smoke increases the risk of lung disease by 25 per cent and heart disease by 10 per cent,” the lung association says.
While the e-cig mimics a cigarette, does the mist amount to second-hand smoke if it contains nicotine but not the tar or other poisons associated with regular tobacco?
That’s the question at the heart of Health Canada and the U.S. FDA examinations.
There’s no denying nicotine is addictive. But it’s not the nicotine that is killing users or second-hand smoke victims. It’s the crap pumped into tobacco to enhance its flavour.
Nicotine gum and patches are widely accepted as safe alternatives to tobacco, and that they can aid in kicking the habit in the butt.
But before e-cigarette passes the litmus test, there must be strict quality control laws over what goes into the devices, and what comes out.
Are e-cigarettes safe or just a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.