WIUM Tristates Public Radio

E-Cigarettes Not as Safe as Advertised, Researchers Say

Jul 20, 2015

22-year-old Christian Justus was once a heavy user of tobacco. For almost a decade he smoked 2 packs a day, chewed tobacco, and also smoked hookah. Justus kicked his habit over a year ago and said he experienced drastic improvements to his health.

“I feel way better. I can breathe. In the mornings when I wake up my chest doesn’t hurt, I can actually go work out, I can go run without a problem. I don’t get fatigued as easy anymore, I can smell, I can taste better. I feel a lot better,” Justus said.

Justus didn’t kick his habit cold turkey, though. He switched from tobacco to e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes have been on the U.S. market for just shy of a decade. They heat up flavored oil, which creates a vapor. The users inhale that and it gives them a quick hit of nicotine.

E-cigarettes come in a variety of nicotine potencies as well as thousands of flavors including watermelon, piña colada, and even banana split.

Justus now manages 309 Vapors in Macomb. The business specializes in the sale e-cigarettes and accessories. While Justus credits e-cigarettes for helping him quit tobacco, critics of the product are skeptical.

One of many display cases at 309 Vapors in Macomb.
Credit Johnny Cather, TSPR

Critics Question Claims About E-cigarettes

Erika Sward, Assistant Vice President of National Advocacy for the American Lung Association, feels ads touting the benefits of e-cigarettes are misleading.

“Importantly, the Food and Drug Administration has not found any e-cigarette to be safe and effective in helping smokers quit. And I think that’s a very important point to make. And that all of these claims are being made without any sort of proof and evidence and verification, especially from the federal government,” Sward said.

Ads for e-cigarettes also tout other benefits.  There are claims they are healthier than traditional cigarettes,  and ads also claim e-cigarettes release nothing more than a harmless water vapor. 

Dr. Thomas Eissenberg takes issue with the claims.  Eissenberg is a professor of Health Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and is currently being funded by the FDA to research e-cigarettes and their effects. He said e-cigarettes produce much more than a harmless water vapor.

Dr. Thomas Eissenberg is currently researching the effects of e-cigarettes with funding by the FDA.
Credit Virginia Commonwealth University

“What they do produce, at the minimum, is an aerosol that contains propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, nicotine, and then a variety of flavors that have been added to the liquid,” Eissenberg said.

Propylene glycol is the same ingredient used to make artificial fog. The FDA recognizes it as safe, but not when it’s being inhaled directly into the lungs.

Propylene glycol isn’t the only potentially harmful chemical in e-cigarettes, though. Dr. Eissenberg said some have been found to contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Eissenberg added that reports of e-cigarettes exploding in the user’s hands or mouths are not outside the realm of possibility, either. He said one e-cigarette in his lab would not turn off and continued to get hotter and hotter so he had to disassemble the device to keep it from burning his hand.

Another concern: e-cigarettes are not currently regulated in the U.S. Despite their popularity, neither the FDA nor any other federal agency oversee production in any way. To date there are more than 450 different brands of e-cigarettes and e-liquids.

Users have no idea what they’re getting in any of the products because there are no legal requirements for safety or consistency.

Back at 309 Vapors

Christian Justus said he’s personally seen e-cigarettes change lives for the better, despite the assertions made by researchers.

He said one customer at 309’s store in Galesburg used to smoke four packs of cigarettes every day, and she had major lung problems like COPD and emphysema. She couldn’t even walk across the store's parking lot. Justus said she has seen remarkable improvements to her health since switching from tobacco to e-cigarettes.

“She can actually walk around without having to sit down for half an hour to catch her breath. She hauled an air conditioner unit that you put in your window up a flight of stairs to her apartment. She’s a lot better,” Justus said.

Researchers say it could be another two to three years before they have conclusive data on the long-term effects of e-cigarettes. Until that data is out, the true effects won’t be known.