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Clearing the Smoke

Rhona Lewis

E-cigarettes are being touted as the answer to the prayers of smokers who would like to quit. But are they really safe? And should we be worried about their appeal for kids?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ask any smoker, and he’ll tell you how hard it is to break the habit, because smoking is an addiction that affects all of the senses. Not only does the smoker become addicted to the nicotine, he also craves the smell of the smoke, the taste of the smoke, the feel of the cigarette between his fingers and in his mouth, and the warmth of the smoke. Add to that the allure of upscale accessories and the Marlboro Man image, and you have an addiction that’s almost impossible to break. Despite the indisputable evidence that smoking kills, and that secondhand and even thirdhand smoke present dangers, smoking is still around.

That’s where e-cigarettes step in. An “e-cigarette” (short for electronic cigarette) is essentially a psychological ploy that mimics the sensory appeal of the cigarette, apparently without its lung-scarring potential. As far back as 1963, Pennsylvania inventor Herbert Gilbert wondered if he could create a device that would simulate the sensations associated with regular cigarettes, and provide a nicotine high — minus the health hazards. Although he did obtain a patent for his device, which replaced burning tobacco and paper with “heated, moist, flavored air,” the idea didn’t take off.

But Gilbert’s idea did provide inspiration for other inventors. When Stephane Vlachos of Michigan wanted to stop smoking, he invented the first modern electronic cigar, which used a combination of hot vaporization, copper pipes, an electric resistance, and a mix of glycerin and water to achieve its effect. Two years later, Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik invented the modern e-cigarette, which uses ultrasonic vaporization.

E-cigarettes hit the market worldwide in 2005. Just in case any Chinese-speakers were wondering what Lik’s new device was all about, his company adopted the name Ruyan, which means “to resemble smoking.” Today major manufacturers include blu (acquired by Lorillard Tobacco in April this year), Njoy, Green Smoke, V2, Safecig, and Abaco. There are also over 100 smaller individual brands owned by very small companies who import e-cigarettes from China and then sell them to consumers exclusively online.

E-cigarettes look like cigarettes, feel like cigarettes, and even puff like cigarettes. The vapor is as warm as tobacco smoke and, thanks to a LED light covered with refractive plastic, the tip of the cigarette glows. But not all puffs are created equal: by “vaping” (the act of “smoking” an e-cigarette) the user gets the nicotine he craves without exposing himself, or other people, to the toxins that come along with tobacco smoke.


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