Electronic cigarettes, also called e-cigarettes, are battery operated devices that people use to inhale an aerosol. For these systems, the aerosol is more commonly referred to as a vapor.
These devices typically contain nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals. They are marketed to resemble traditional tobacco cigarettes, cigars, and/or pipes. They are even manufactured to look like everyday items such as pens or USB memory sticks. Other devices, such as those with refillable reservoirs, may look different, but are also on the market. Regardless of their design and appearance, these devices generally operate in a similar manner and are made of similar components.
How do e-cigarettes work?
Most e-cigarettes consist of four different components. The components include:
- A cartridge or reservoir, which holds a liquid solution containing varying amounts of nicotine, flavorings, and/or other chemicals
- A heating element, which is the atomizer. The atomizer produces the aerosol or vapor for inhalation
- A power source, which is usually a battery. This actually supplies the atomizer with the
necessary electrical current to function
- A mouthpiece. This is the device a person uses to inhale from the e-cigarette
In many e-cigarettes, puffing on the mouthpiece activates the battery-powered heating device, which then vaporizes the liquid in the cartridge. The person then inhales the resulting aerosol or vapor. This is what is known as ‘vaping’.
What are the health effects of e-cigarettes?
Research so far suggests that e-cigarettes might be less harmful than cigarettes when people who regularly smoke switch to them as a complete replacement. But nicotine, in any form, is a highly addictive substance. Research also suggests that using e-cigarettes can prime the brain’s reward system. In so doing it can put people who use them at risk for addiction to other drugs.
How do e-cigarettes affect the brain?
The nicotine in e-liquids readily absorbs into the bloodstream when a person uses an e cigarette. Upon entering the blood, nicotine stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline). Epinephrine stimulates the central nervous system and increases blood pressure, respiratory rate, and heart rate.
The stimulated adrenal glands also release dopamine in the brain. The activity of dopamine in the brain’s reward system motivates some people to use the nicotine over and over again, despite the potential risks to their health and well being.
Can e-cigarettes help a person to quit smoking?
One school of thought is that e-cigarettes may help lower the nicotine cravings in those who are trying to quit smoking. The marketing of e-cigarettes promote its use as a method to help smokers quit or reduce their reliance on the use of tobacco. As mentioned above, inhaling from an e-cigarette is a process which is called vaping. When you inhale from an e-cigarette, you are not inhaling smoke. You’re inhaling an aerosol (water vapor) and a mixture of chemicals. The liquid in many e-cigarettes contains nicotine. When you exhale the vapor, others can breathe in this mixture. This is similar to what we all know as ‘second-hand smoke’. Besides e-cigarettes, there are other devices that can be used for vaping.
When nicotine is part of the system, for the purposes of this essay, the intent is the same.
It should be well noted that e-cigarettes are not an FDA-approved quitting aid. In addition there is no conclusive scientific evidence on the effectiveness of e-cigarettes for long-term smoking cessation. There are however, seven FDA-approved quitting aids that are proven safe which can be effective when used as directed. More research is needed to determine if e-cigarettes may be as effective as smoking cessation aids already approved by the FDA.
Can e-cigarettes (vaping) cause COPD?
There is a lack of scientific data on the health effects of e-cigarettes used among smokers with COPD and whether regular use results in improvement in subjective and objective COPD outcomes. In one small study from 2016, it was found that vaping e-cigarette fluids containing nicotine triggered the effects associated with the development of COPD. This included lung inflammation and destruction of lung tissue. The study used cultured human lung cells and mice. Both were found to be nicotine- dependent by the end of the study.
There hasn’t been enough research on the general health risks of vaping or whether it can increase your chances of developing COPD. However, it seems reasonable to conclude there is nothing related to the use of e-cigarettes that can contribute towards the improvement of COPD symptoms for patients with the disease. As well, if e-cigarettes can predispose someone towards smoking, it would be prudent to avoid their use.
What’s this mean?
E-cigarettes haven’t been thoroughly evaluated in scientific studies. For now, not enough data exists on the safety of e-cigarettes, how the health effects compare to traditional cigarettes, and if they are helpful for people trying to quit smoking. For those of us in our online community, it would seem most prudent to stop smoking by traditional FDA-approved means and not venture into the world of e- cigarettes at all.