Five myths about e-cigarettes and what science actually says

January 19, 2016

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are battery powered devices that heat liquids to produce a fog like vapour. E-cigarettes are new technology and have only been widely available in North America for a few years. Their popularity is growing rapidly and the e-cigarette industry is now worth billions.

E-cigarettes have been in the news more and more, but the news does not always have the most accurate information. Today I am going to share five myths surrounding e-cigarettes and what science actually says about them.

1. E-cigarettes are harmless

Most research suggests that e-cigarettes are less dangerous than tobacco cigarettes, but “less dangerous” does not mean safe. Many companies claim that e-cigarettes produce “harmless water vapour” but this is untrue. Although the liquids in some e-cigarettes (called e-liquids) may contain some water, they also have several other ingredients. Most e-liquids contain propylene glycol, glycerin, flavouring chemicals and nicotine.

man smoking e-cigarette The vapour produced by e-cigarettes can cause eye and throat irritation and headaches. Some laboratory studies have even found that the vapour from e-cigarettes kills cells and damages DNA. The flavouring in e-liquid is also a serious concern. Some flavouring chemicals are safe to eat but can cause permanent lung damage when inhaled. We don’t know much about the long-term consequences of using e-cigarettes, but research studies like this tells us that e-cigarettes are not harmless.

2. It is the smoke in cigarettes, not the nicotine that is harmful

Another popular claim is that cigarettes are dangerous because of the smoke, not the nicotine. E-cigarettes do not produce smoke, but most contain nicotine. The truth is, smoke and nicotine are both dangerous. Most people know that nicotine is highly addictive. Fewer people know how harmful it can actually be to your health.

Nicotine is especially dangerous for developing brains. Exposure during pregnancy can affect the growth of a fetus’s brain and lungs. Teenagers are also vulnerable to nicotine, as adolescence is an important time for brain development. Nicotine exposure during adolescence can harm cognitive functions like working memory and attention span. Teenage brains are also much more sensitive to nicotine than adult brains and become addicted much faster.

E-cigarettes containing nicotine are not approved for sale in Canada, but they are still widely available. The amount of nicotine delivered by an e-cigarette varies based on:

  • The concentration of nicotine in the e-liquid
  • The type of e-cigarette
  • How powerful the battery is
  • How experienced the user is with e-cigarettes

Early versions of e-cigarettes were not very effective at delivering nicotine, but new designs are becoming more efficient. In some cases 10 puffs of an e-cigarette can deliver more nicotine than a tobacco cigarette.

3. E-cigarettes are proven to help people quit smoking

E-cigarette companies love to make claims about how e-cigarettes can help people stop smoking. I’ve read dozens of articles about e-cigarettes that start with a story about how someone smoked for decades, and then one day switched to e-cigarettes and never looked back. This may happen for a few people, it is definitely not the norm. The truth is, we still don’t know if e-cigarettes help people quit smoking. At best, e-cigarettes may be as effective as the nicotine patch or gum, but they are definitely not the miracle that many companies say they are.

Health Canada has not approved e-cigarettes as a tool to stop smoking. In fact, they advise Canadians to not use e-cigarettes at all. If you are thinking of quitting smoking, Smoker’s Helpline has more information on resources and tools to help you quit.

4. Second-hand vapour is completely harmless

Woman smoking e-cigarette inside Tobacco cigarettes produce what is called side stream smoke. This is the smoke that comes from the burning tip of a cigarette between puffs. Most of the toxins in second hand smoke enter the atmosphere through side stream smoke. E-cigarettes only create vapour when the user is taking a puff, which means that less chemicals end up in the air. However, e-cigarette vapour still enters the air when users exhale.

Second-hand vapour can expose bystanders to nicotine and other chemicals. Most research shows that second-hand aerosol is less dangerous than second-hand smoke but, again, “less dangerous” does not necessarily mean safe. Some ingredients in second-hand aerosol may cause eye and throat irritation and the flavouring chemicals may create odours that could irritate people who are sensitive to scents. At this time, no one knows the long term effects of inhaling second-hand vapour so we cannot say either way whether or not it is harmless.

5. Only smokers use e-cigarettes

Although most people who use e-cigarettes are smokers, use among teens has skyrocketed in the last few years. In Canada, more teens and young adults have tried e-cigarettes than any other age group. If fact, more than 1 in 7 Ontario high school students had more than “just a few puffs” of an e-cigarette in the past year. It’s hard to know how many of these teens are just experimenting with e-cigarettes and how many are frequent users, but it is clear that young people are very interested in these products.

E-cigarettes are relatively new technology and there are many unknowns, especially when it comes to their safety, whether they help people quit smoking and if they could cause young people to become addicted to nicotine. Ontario needs to balance making a potentially effective cessation device available to people who want to quit smoking while also making sure we are not exposing youth to a potentially dangerous and addictive product.

No e-cigarettes under 19 On January 1, 2016, new laws came into effect which ban the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under 19. This means that e-cigarette vendors must check the ID of anyone trying to buy an e-cigarette that looks to be under the age of 25. The laws also ban the sale of e-cigarettes through a vending machine. Learn more about the new e-cigarette laws.

Changes to the Smoke-Free Ontario Act also came into effect on January 1. Most flavoured tobacco products are now banned. Menthol and clove flavoured cigarettes are temporarily exempt, but they will be included in the ban at the beginning of 2017. The changes to the Smoke-Free Ontario Act also ban smoking on the grounds of hospitals and psychiatric facilities. These places may have a designated smoking area until the beginning of 2018, but from then on, hospitals and psychiatric facilities must be 100% smoke free.

So there you have it, five e-cigarette myths and what the science really says. What surprised you most? Were you aware of the new laws? Let us know below!

Blair Hodgson
Health Promotion Specialist