A recent news article about a man whose electronic cigarette exploded in his pocket made me realize that I had never really thought about the relatively recent expansion of e-cigarette use.
While there’s talk the devices may be helpful to some who wish to quit smoking, I’m somewhat skeptical any time an industry facing scrutiny attempts to pass off its product as safe. Especially the tobacco industry.
Back in 1994, the heads of the seven largest tobacco companies in the United States sat before Congress and brought forth in me a sense of disgust and anger that I’ve seldom felt.
One by one, despite all common sense and decades of experience, they repeated, with one or two variations, "I believe that nicotine is not addictive."
At the time, I had smoked for nearly 20 years, and had tried to quit a few times. Like the vast majority of smokers, I had picked up the habit as a teenager.
I eventually quit smoking. One thing that helped me was an American Heart Association guidebook. The other was the 2001 book by former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, "A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry."
In his book, Kessler described how federal investigators learned that tobacco companies had known for years that nicotine is addictive and had even manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes to keep users "satisfied."
Kessler also described how industry sales agents targeted adolescents by ensuring stores near schools were always amply stocked with product and advertisements targeted at youthful new smokers.
During the weeks it took me to finish Kessler’s book, every nicotine craving brought a sense of anger at the duplicitous system I had become trapped in. I had no doubt cigarettes were addictive, and nobody who smokes has ever doubted that fact either. What I didn’t realize was how diligent the drug pushers had been in ensnaring new customers.
Back in 1994, there may have been a question about nicotine addiction in the legal sense, but it was only because the tobacco industry quashed studies that proved it – which Kessler also detailed.
Today, there is no doubt about the addictive nature of nicotine.
However, where the FDA once threatened to ban cigarettes as "nicotine delivery devices," today’s electronic cigarettes can be found on nearly any street corner.
Companies that sell e-cigarettes glowingly describe the specific characteristics of their devices, from number of ohms of electrical resistance in the coil that vaporizes the nicotine-bearing "juice," to the battery life measured in units of electronic power, among other esoteric details.
In years past, the only ordinary people who would understand such terms spent their Saturdays looking for diodes in the component drawers at Radio Shack.
E-cigarettes range in price from around $8 for a single-use, disposable e-cigarette, to $70 or more for a reusable rig. After all, a rubber band, candle and spoon just won’t do when your toxic fix has to be vaporized for inhalation. Just don’t overcharge the battery, or it might explode.
There are thousands of blends and brands of "juice" on the market, all completely unregulated.
Each particular product has a certain "PG/VG" ratio, referring to the primary ingredients — propylene glycol and vegetable glycerine. One produces thicker vapor. The other vaporizes easier, or something like that. Nicotine concentrations can range up to 36 milligrams per milliliter in a "bold" concoction. You can even send away for ingredients, including liquid nicotine, and make your own blend.
What you end up with won’t have all the tar of an ordinary cigarette, thought the purveyors of these fine chemicals advise one to make sure to wear gloves when dealing with nicotine. It can poison you.
While the National Institute on Drug Abuse says there are some 460 brands of e-cigarettes on the market, big tobacco companies such as Lorillard, Phillip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and British American Tobacco are moving in and are leading producers of these modern drug-delivery devices.
That’s because it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks. You might as well call e-cigarettes "everywhere" cigarettes. That’s because you can buy them just about anywhere, from Giant Eagle, to Wal-Mart, Walgreens and the corner gas station. That’s according to the website for one popular brand, which is owned by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
And even though candy flavored cigarettes have been banned for years due to their attraction to youngsters, many current blends of "juice" are described by industry sites using terms one would use to describe exotic ice creams.
In a report issued last year, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office states e-cigarettes are now the most common form of tobacco used by youth in the nation, having increased 900 percent between 2011 and 2015. The report states total sales in 2015 were projected to be $3.5 billion — which is what you would have if you could get $10 from every man, woman and child in the United States.
The kids in high school alone are worth tens of millions of dollars each year, both as new users and long-term customers.
The Surgeon General’s report states, "The most commonly cited reasons for using e-cigarettes among both youth and young adults are curiosity, flavoring/taste, and low perceived harm compared to other tobacco products. The use of e-cigarettes as an aid to quit conventional cigarettes is not reported as a primary reason for use among youth and young adults."
So, a new generation of nicotine addicts is growing up.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 45 percent of high school students who smoke have tried to quit in the past year. Nearly 70 percent of adult smokers want to quit.
I’m pretty sure that the time will come when many of those young people who "vape" will wonder and regret why they ever started.