We have all had (or at least known) that one friend who brought an electronic cigarette (or e-cigarette) so that they could quit smoking. The assumption at play? That while cigarettes are harmful and while tobacco causes diseases like cancer and heart diseases, e-cigarettes are harmless, benign, and pose zero health risks. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
That e-cigarettes and e-shishas help in quitting smoking is only one of the many popular myths that surround their sale and usage. The truth is that researchers (unless they are funded by tobacco companies) argue that transnational tobacco companies make use of deceptive health claims to market e-cigarettes to target young consumers and encourage them to smoke.
In a country where 8-9 lakh people die of tobacco related diseases every year, this trend is obviously problematic. Add to this the fact that sale of e-cigarettes isn’t regulated in India (except in Karnataka, Kerala and Punjab where they are banned under food and drug laws and regulations) and the problem becomes bigger.
Considering the rise in their sale and consumption in recent years (the Union health minister told the parliament in December 2015 that the import of e-cigarettes had risen by almost 100% between 2012-13 and 2015-16), it becomes essential to question the myths surrounding this smoking device.
Here we debunk the most popular myths associated with e-cigarettes/e-shishas:
A study conducted by the Dutch health ministry found that although e-cigarettes have lower concentration of some cigarette-specific toxic chemical compounds (like tobacco-specific nitrosamines), e-cigarettes have their own toxicants (like polyols and aldehydes), that sometimes exist in higher concentrations than in cigarette smoke.
If you are smoking a nicotine containing e-cigarettes or e-shisha, there is little respite for you. Nicotine by itself isn’t a carcinogen – but it does promote tumours and malignant diseases. After all, cigarettes have been around for a while and there is plenty of research that shows that nicotine, the chemical that drives people to smoking, is harmful for you.
Even non-nicotine e-cigarettes contain heavy metals. And prolonged use of even these e-cigarettes can lead to cancer. More research, however, needs to be conducted before we can directly correlate the amount of heavy metals consumed through e-cigarettes to cancer.
This is another big myth. Nicotine in itself is considered highly addictive and can even lead you on to try other drugs. It’s not surprising to know then that the US’ National Institute On Drug Abuse has stated that ‘there is no conclusive scientific evidence on the effectiveness of e-cigarettes for long-term smoking cessation’.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that although there isn’t a clear association (chemically/biologically) between vaping and smoking, it also found that ‘use by minors who have never smoked at least doubles their chance of starting to smoke’.
Why is this myth out there then? Two Danish researchers reviewed 76 studies conducted on the content of the fluid/vapour of e-cigarettes and found ‘serious methodological problems’. “In 26 studies (34%), the authors had a conflict of interest. Most studies were funded or otherwise supported/influenced by manufacturers of ECs, but several authors had also been consultants for manufacturers of medicinal smoking cessation therapy,” the review says.
Maybe, but you will be doing that at your own risk. Metal content can vary across products and brands and you can try and choose ones which have low toxic substances. But how do you figure out if a company’s claims are true?
Take, for example, these three results from a laboratory analysis done by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
These results are from the US, which has some country-wide regulations for e-cigarettes at least. In India, where there are no guidelines or rules around them, the market remains almost completely unregulated. So, it is totally up to the consumer to test the veracity of a company’s claims and make a decision!
Until January 2014, there were close to 8,000 flavours of e-cigarettes available – but research on them remains scarce. Popcorn flavourants are, however, known to cause ‘excess rates of lung disease and lung-function abnormalities’. A study done specifically on cinnamon-flavoured e-cigarettes found that the flavourants are toxic for living cells.
Moreover, when it comes to perceptions, a study based on a 2014 survey done in the UK with 11-16-year-olds found that the perception of harmfulness of e-cigarettes was moderated by what flavour they came in. “Fruit and sweet flavours were perceived as more likely to be tried by young never smokers than adult smokers trying to quit,” the study says.
All things said, when tobacco companies are getting involved with vaping, one should always be a little cautious and do one’s own research – than take their claims at face value. These multinationals are known for their intense lobbying and secretive marketing that you as a consumer might not always be aware of.
When you hear ‘facts’ about e-cigarettes or e-shishas, beware of where they are coming from and how they were found. Ultimately, it is your health that’s at risk. So practice exercising that extra caution before buying that e-cigarette and trusting your health with it!