E-Cigarettes: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Harms?


E-cigarettes first hit western markets in 2004 and have soared in popularity throughout the latter part of the decade since their introduction. One common reason for their success is the public perception that they offer a low risk method of delivering nicotine when compared with the traditional tobacco cigarette. But their relatively short time on the market has left both consumers and health professionals alike wondering just how safe personal vaporizers are. Findings have been mixed, with statements from health organizations running the gamut from optimistic approval to calls for greater caution.

A 2015 report from Public Health England, an arm of the United Kingdom’s Department of Health, concluded that e-cigarettes were about 95% less harmful than traditional tobacco cigarettes. The agency expressed hope that vaporizers could play an important role in helping current smokers quit, suggesting that they should be adopted and employed in a similar fashion to nicotine replacement therapies. This raises an important point: namely, at present e-cigarette nicotine content is not controlled or regulated with the same rigor as nicotine patches, gums, and other non-tobacco products. The agency also went on to confirm that e-cigarettes still carry their own inherent risks, even if they are a mere fraction of the health concerns brought on by traditional tobacco products. Overall, their conclusions suggests that there is at least some appreciable benefit for smokers who make the switch to e-cigarettes.

A common selling point for e-cigarettes is that the liquid they use to deliver the nicotine is much cleaner than cigarette tobacco, whose smoke is known to contain over 8,000 chemicals, many of them carcinogenic . However, recent findings suggest that not only can e-cigarettes produce harmful chemicals in their vapor, but in some cases may do so in an even higher concentration than ordinary tobacco smoke. One such chemical was identified in a recent report from the New England Journal of Medicine. According to this report, researchers found that exposure to formaldehyde, a chemical also found in traditional cigarettes, could potentially be up to 15 times higher when using an e-cigarette. While the report was far from conclusive, it suggests there is at least some overlap in the chemical dangers posed by both tobacco and electronic cigarettes.

Overall, the current position from medical professionals seems to be one of cautious hope. While they still provide an avenue for nicotine addiction, e-cigarettes may at least be said to offer a safer road. While acknowledging that they still expose the body to harmful chemicals, it seems clear, at least for the present, that it does so at a much lower level than tobacco smoke. The findings from the formaldehyde study are certainly worrisome, but they remain an isolated example. Perhaps with increased regulation from health and wellness organizations, e-cigarettes will grow from a position of reluctant acceptance to one of endorsement by those looking to curb tobacco use. In the mean time, it appears the benefits e-cigarettes offer smokers outweigh the known risks.