To the uninitiated, walking into this suburban Toronto bar must look like a throwback to the 1980s. A cloud of what appears to be smoke can be seen hovering over a group at the far end of the establishment. But a quick check of the sense confirms that looks can be deceiving.
The air is fresh, lacking the pungent aroma of burning tobacco; the eyes aren’t watering with the sting of fresh smoke seeping into the sockets; and instead of ash trays and cigarette packs, the tables are full of small bottles of liquid and other pieces of equipment. On this night, a group of Toronto-area electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette, enthusiasts are getting together for their monthly meet-up.
E-cigarettes were invented in 2003 by a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik. The company he worked for, Golden Dragon Holdings, was so impressed, it changed its name to Ruyan (meaning “like smoke”) and began marketing the product the following year. Since that time, a vibrant international market in e-cigarette equipment and supplies has developed.
The devices contain a heating element that turns a liquid made of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine (two common food additives) and nicotine into a water vapour, which simulates the act of smoking and delivers nicotine to the body, without exposing it to the carcinogens found in tobacco smoke. The liquids are available in a variety of flavours and nicotine strengths.
Most experts agree that more research needs to be done to determine just how much safer it is than smoking. But consider this: Detailed studies have been conducted to determine the chemical composition of e-cigarette liquid and it has not been found to contain more than trace elements of any of the carcinogens found in tobacco smoke. Cigarettes, on the other hand, contain over 10,000 chemicals (only 5,300 of which have been identified) and 40 known carcinogens.
It’s clear that since nothing is being combusted in an e-cigarette, their use is significantly less harmful than smoking. A 2010 paper published in the Journal of Public Health Policy reviewed the available data and concluded that, “electronic cigarettes are a much safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes.” Researchers at the Canadian organization TobaccoHarmReduction.org called e-cigarettes “the tobacco harm reduction phenomenon of the year.”
But just because a technology has the potential to save millions of lives, doesn’t mean someone hasn’t tried to ban it.