No one calls you a hypocrite if you like to exercise and you drink alcohol on the weekends, but if you smoke cigarettes? Forget about it. What kind of idiot eats broccoli and lifts weights, but sucks down cancer sticks when they leave the gym?
Well, I do. Actually, I used to smoke every day, then cut down to only weekends. At least, that was the disclaimer that I'd spout off to my incredulous friends, as smoke circled my face at parties. ”Just two days out of the week means I'm, like, two-sevenths as likely to get cancer now, right?” Probably not, but it sounded good to me.
But recently, after a particularly tobacco-heavy Friday night that left me coughing up a lung for the rest of the weekend, I decided to deliberately start smoking e-cigarettes in hopes of cutting back on “real” cigarettes. Quitting cold turkey wasn't really a goal: I was still telling myself that one(-ish) packs per month wasn't really a big deal—but if e-cigs reduce the harm while delivering the high, why not?
The Case for E-Cigarettes
Believe me, I know they look stupid (“mouth fedoras” is my favorite slang term)—and that ring of smoke billowing up doesn’t exactly equate to a halo of health. But in some ways, smoking e-cigs, or “vaping,” instead of traditional tobacco cigarettes seemed to make sense.
The average cigarette has some 4,000 chemical compounds, hundreds of toxins, and at least 69 known carcinogens. On the other hand, the “smoke” of an e-cigarette (it’s really vapor) only contains about four ingredients: distilled water, nicotine, glycerin, propylene glycol, and perhaps some flavoring.
In some ways, smoking e-cigs, or “vaping,” instead of traditional tobacco cigarettes seemed to make sense.
All but the nicotine are “generally recognized as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but that only means they’re considered safe for eating, not inhaling. Propylene glycol is common ingredient in cosmetics, medicine, and food products from boxed cake mix to salad dressings, as well as the phony fog you see on stage at concerts.
What’s more: A recent review by a U.K. government organization, Public Health England, concluded that e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than tobacco cigarettes. While the organization’s chief medical officer cautioned that they are not completely free from risk, they can be used as a means to help smokers (like me) quit or cut back.
With (some) research behind me, I decided to forge ahead.
My e-cig of choice was JUUL, a new product from the folks behind the popular PAX vaper, which I mostly picked because I'm a sucker for their advertising. Like a hipster rave at the Marlboro Man's ranch, this exact commercial played for weeks on a Times Square billboard outside my office window.
Are they advertising a drug or H&M? Why are they having so much fun? Why can’t I have that much fun? Will a JUUL e-cigarette make me dress better and get invited to parties? After a few weeks of watching the ad, the logic seemed airtight, and I ordered myself a kit.
My first impression after using my new toy? As a drug, this sh!t was good. The nicotine hit felt a lot stronger than a cigarette, often to the point that my knees would wobble and I'd need to sit down. JUUL gets you high.
But in every single other way, vaping was a superior experience to smoking. It didn’t make my clothes and breath stink, there was no ash, it was less wasteful, and it was cheaper. Best of all, it was less offensive to people around me. And to top it off, the nicotine comes in some insanely delicious flavors (crème brulée, anyone?).
Is it a good thing that e-cigarettes are so, well, good? As a health writer, I had to do my research. Sure, on the surface they appear to be “safer,” but studies have shown that people who have regularly inhaled propylene glycol over many years (like stagehands who handle fog machines) are more likely to suffer from eye and respiratory tract infections later in life. Effects of theatrical smokes and fogs on respiratory health in the entertainment industry. Varughese S, Teschke K, Brauer M. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 2005, Sep.;47(5):0271-3586.
And e-cigs might contain a fair share of their own chemicals: Studies have found the vapor to contain nickel, tin, and silver from the device’s wires and joints, as well as formaldehyde, tolulene, and a handful of other tongue twisters, some of which have been linked to cancer and problems related to the central nervous system. Metal and silicate particles including nanoparticles are present in electronic cigarette cartomizer fluid and aerosol. Williams M, Villarreal A, Bozhilov K. PloS One, 2013, Mar.;8(3):1932-6203.
So is vaping really the best way to quit a nicotine habit? I spoke to the CEO of JUUL, James Monsees, after a week of puffing his product to hear his side of the story.
“Oh, we have no intention of making a nicotine cessation product of any sorts,” he told me.
“If you're considering the shift to e-cigarettes as quitting, you're not quitting smoking. If that’s your goal, use a pharmaceutical product that's intended and approved for those purposes.”
OK, this probably does make sense from a business perspective: You wouldn’t want to deliberately appeal to an audience that’s destined to stop buying your product. But although e-cigarette studies aren’t always perfect (one analysis found that 34 percent of them involve a conflict of interest), they’re pretty consistent on this point: People do use e-cigarettes as a means to quit smoking.
One survey of nearly 6,000 English smokers showed they were 60 percent more likely to quit smoking using e-cigarettes than using patches, gum, or willpower alone. In another group of 19,414 smokers and ex-smokers, Greek researchers reported that 81 percent said they had quit by way of e-cigs. Characteristics, perceived side effects and benefits of electronic cigarette use: a worldwide survey of more than 19,000 consumers. Farsalinos KE, Romagna G, Tsiapras D. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2014, Apr.;11(4):1660-4601.
A Washington Post op-ed even declared that, “We should make e-cigarettes accessible to smokers by eschewing hefty taxes, if we tax them at all, and offering free samples and starter kits… Vapers would serve as visual prompts for smokers to ask about vaping and, ideally, ditch traditional cigarettes and take up electronic ones instead.”
I don’t think that e-cigarettes are, at this time, a tool that's approved for quitting smoking
Monsees, meanwhile, cautions, “Any nicotine product has its risks. I don’t think that e-cigarettes are, at this time, a tool that's approved for quitting smoking. And it's certainly unlikely that you're going to get your doctor's support using an unapproved product to quit smoking. No, our intention is make the absolute best nicotine product on the market.”
The (Mixed) Results
As for my own experiment with the product, the two-week mark was when I started to get worried. See, a big benefit of e-cigarettes is that you can always just have one drag at a time—you haven’t set aflame something you need to finish off.
And like most aspects of e-cigs, this is a double-edged sword. Since nothing's on fire, you puff as infrequently as you want—but at the same time it’s always there, whenever you want to take a puff. I’ve now found myself smoking at times when I otherwise wouldn’t: on my couch after a party, walking between buildings, on a late-night bathroom break. I’m vaping right now, typing this in my bed. I never did that with cigarettes. They were too smelly and messy to intrude this far into my life.
Frankly, it’s nice to be able to carry a shot of calm with me wherever I go.
The two weeks I gave myself to try e-cigarettes has come to a close, and I’m asking myself whether I really need this new habit. It’s actually a tough question. Pleasure is hard to come by, and if I have a sure-fire source of immediate relaxation that is, in all likelihood, way less harmful than a cigarette, can’t I enjoy it? Being an adult is hard sometimes, and frankly, it’s nice to be able to carry a shot of calm with me wherever I go.
For now I'm still using e-cigs and have totally stopped smoking cigarettes. So I'd say I accomplished my goal.
As Michael Siegel, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of community health sciences at Boston University, recently told Men's Health: “[Some public health advocates] are trying to keep e-cigarettes off the market, or discourage their use, because they may have some contaminant that 40 years down the road may be shown to create a slight risk of cancer. They’re living in a fantasy land, not reality. In the real world, people are dying because of cigarettes. What they need is a way to get off cigarettes because that’s what’s going to kill them.”
Still, I should probably cut back.
This post was written by Nick English ,and the views expressed herein are his. For more from Nick, follow him on Twitter.